Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Let Them Fight?

1. Ross Chastain Is As Big a Heel As Kyle Busch Ever Was

If you ask anyone who’s been following NASCAR since at least 2000 who the biggest bad guy in the sport has been over that time, chances are they’re going to say Kyle Busch.

Busch made playing the heel, as they call villains in professional wrestling, into an art form. And not unlike pro wrestlers, Busch both understood and leaned into the idea that some people not liking you can actually be good for your career.

Getting a reaction – any reaction – is the idea. But that’s when we’re talking about fans.

Ross Chastain has what wrestlers would call the wrong kind of heat. He has people who can’t stand him not because they like to root against him (though some likely do, given his success since joining Trackhouse Racing) but because they wish he wasn’t even racing.

And crucially, this is from other drivers, not fans.

Chastain’s beef with Denny Hamlin is well documented. But he’s now added two other competitors, Kyle Larson and Noah Gragson, to his list of potential enemies in consecutive races.

Larson isn’t likely to ever retaliate on the track or come looking to rumble with the Melon Man after a race. Gragson, on the other hand, definitely is.

As the AP’s Dave Skretta noted this week, it’s possible that Chastain can “embrace the role of the villain.” It’s just that there’s a difference between a persona you put on for the crowd and one you live out on the track. Busch himself started out doing the latter before gradually drifting toward the former.

Can Chastain do the same — and does he even want to?

See also
Up to Speed: Ross Chastain Punching Back at Critics

2. Maybe NASCAR Fights Should Be Regulated Like Hockey Fights

There aren’t nearly as many fights in NHL games as there were several decades ago, when dropping the gloves was a more accepted way of handling slights both real and imagined on the ice. One thing that hasn’t changed all that much is that when two players square off, the officials don’t move in to break it up until they’re either both on the ice thrashing around or one clearly has the other in trouble.

Before you question how this is relevant to NASCAR, consider one of the things Gragson said after his post-race scuffle with Chastain at Kansas Speedway: “I didn’t even get a shot in because the security guards got in the middle of it.”

He’s not wrong.

This was a one-shot fight, not because Chastain KO’d Gragson, but because as soon as the first punch was thrown, there were a bunch of people who intervened to break things up.

NASCAR would likely say job well done for that, and yes, Gragson put his hands on Chastain first, grabbing him by the firesuit.

It’s not really fair, however, to not let someone who just got punched in the face at least have a chance to defend themselves. There’s also an argument that could be made that the chance of injury could increase once additional people are involved in a melee. Using hockey as an example again, there’s a reason why the penalties for being the third man in on an NHL fight are so severe that it’s rare to ever see it happen.

(It’s worth nothing that it matters who those extra people are; NASCAR officials and track security personnel are one thing, but we’ve all seen overzealous crew members wade into pit road fights in the past.)

NASCAR would likely never admit that it’s good to have drivers throwing hands after races, but it does get people talking. Maybe it should consider training people that if drivers are going to take it to that level when they disagree, both parties should be able to try to get in a few shots before outside forces intervene.

See also
Tempers Flare Between Noah Gragson, Ross Chastain in One Hot Afternoon at Kansas

3. F1 Drivers Want Routine, Not Showmanship, Before They Race

OK, not all F1 drivers, as the headline of this Road and Track piece is a little misleading. Be that as it may, there were certainly a few big names around the paddock for the Miami Grand Prix on Sunday (May 7) who weren’t too crazy about the NASCAR-style driver introductions.

Among the complaints came one from George Russell about needing to stand around in the sun for 30 minutes before racing, something he said “I don’t think there’s any other sports in the world” would do. He’s obviously never watched the NBA All-Star Game, where the players seem like they’re hanging around for about 90 minutes before the actual game through all kinds of theatrics — though inside, granted.

Were the driver intros over the top? Check them all out in one YouTube video (which F1 won’t allow us to embed, party poopers) and judge for yourself.

In any case, some bad news for the drivers who didn’t like this kind of pageantry: If you think Miami tries to turn the pre-race time into a spectacle, Las Vegas is waiting to say “hold my comically oversized beer” later this season.

4. Welcome Back, Rocket Man

Of the drivers who recently left NASCAR who could be excused for never wanting to return, Ryan Newman is right near the top of the list. Though the 18-time NASCAR Cup Series winner competed full time through the 2021 season, the memory of his violent crash during the 2020 Daytona 500 is still etched into the minds of fans, and his eventual recovery the last thing many probably associate with him.

Of course, Newman more than earned the right to race again if he wants, so it wasn’t completely shocking when he was announced as a part-time driver for Rick Ware Racing earlier this month. What does make you take pause, however, is that he wanted to race only at short tracks but has to compete at Darlington Raceway so he can be eligible for the NASCAR All-Star Open at North Wilkesboro Speedway.

It’s not just a wish to not repeat his Daytona International Speedway experience that has shaped Newman’s desired schedule, however. He told Autoweek that he isn’t sure the Next Gen car is as safe as it should be.

The crashworthiness of the Next Gen car was a major story in the second half of the 2022 NASCAR season that seems to have faded into the background a bit this year, even though the hard hits have kept on coming. When one of NASCAR’s 75 Greatest Drivers is essentially saying “I’d race more but I’m not convinced I should,” that should be a big red flag that it shouldn’t be relegated to the backburner.

See also
The Big 6: Questions Answered After Denny Hamlin Plays a Perfect Bump-and-Run at Kansas

5. Silly Season Isn’t as Much Fun in The Social Media Era

Josh Berry is quite the story. He’s exhibit A in the just-needed-an-opportunity file, going from racing late models to filling in admirably for injured Hendrick Motorsports Cup drivers in a relatively short period of time.

If it was 15 years ago, Berry getting a shot to replace one of the best drivers of his generation — switching manufacturers to do so — is the kind of news that would have sent a jolt through silly season when it arrived in the fall.

Instead, Berry taking over for Kevin Harvick is the sport’s worst-kept secret, one that will now only surprise most NASCAR fans if it doesn’t happen. What would have been a juicy piece of offseason analysis will now be completely played out long before he ever gets fitted for a seat for the No. 4 Ford.

This isn’t some old man rant against the horrors of social media, which actually has been extremely helpful in making it easier to keep up on racing news and provided another channel for fans to hear directly from drivers. It’s simply an acknowledgement that the silly season news cycle isn’t what it used to be, and that’s kind of a bummer.

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Just a thought Nascar should bring out a boxing ring after the race and let drivers who are mad at each other get it on for a couple of rounds. Bet the ratings would go up big time.