Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: A Kyle Larson Playoff Waiver Isn’t the Real Question

They call it the greatest day in motorsports, and that’s not an exaggeration. Formula 1’s Monaco Grand Prix and the NTT IndyCar Series’ Indianapolis 500 are their respective series’ most prestigious races, and the Coca-Cola 600 which wraps up the night is one of the NASCAR Cup Series’ most coveted trophies as well. NASCAR also kicks off the weekend with a pair of undercard races. It’s truly a glut of racing.

This year’s slate of events left fans with a few questions on the NASCAR side. 

After a Saturday (May 25) incident during the NASCAR Xfinity Series race, will NASCAR come down hard on Austin Hill after he turned Cole Custer into the wall? Why, after attempting to dry the Charlotte Motor Speedway surface for over an hour on Sunday night, did NASCAR pull the plug on the Cup race just past halfway? Also, will Kyle Larson, delayed in Indy after severe storms pushed the start back, be given a playoff waiver when he missed the 600 racing in another series?

See also
Justin Allgaier Holds Down Fort for Kyle Larson, HMS with 13th-Place Showing in Coke 600

Let’s talk about the waiver system. Before waivers were incorporated into NASCAR’s championship system, if a driver missed a race for any reason, they simply didn’t get any points. In a tight championship battle, that could have meant the difference between a title and an afterthought, so drivers would race hurt, sick or in other adverse circumstances. 

There needed to be a way to allow a driver to recover from an injury or attend to a family emergency without throwing his season away. The playoff system lends itself better to this type of circumstance, though there certainly are solutions that could work in a full-season championship scenario as well.

The way waivers work is that a team can apply one if the driver can’t race for some reason. It gives a driver time to safely recover from an injury outside the racecar. It also allows for a driver who is sick or has a family emergency or a death in the family to attend to that and not be penalized for something beyond their control.

Those are all very legitimate reasons for missing a week or two.

But things got tricky.

Drivers missing multiple weeks due to racing or non-racing injuries, drivers suspended by NASCAR and, now, a driver electing to skip a race to race in another series are all scenarios that have come up. NASCAR has granted waivers for long-term injuries from NASCAR races (Kyle Busch in 2015) as well as from those incurred in outside hobbies (Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman in 2023) and for illness (Jimmie Johnson in 2020, though he ultimately missed the playoff cut). NASCAR has also, for some reason, given them to drivers suspended by the sanctioning body for rules violations (Elliott in 2023).

That all means there’s no reason Larson won’t get one as well. If Hendrick Motorsports had thought that was in question, Larson would not have been allowed to stay in Indianapolis. Because the rules require drivers to either start every regular season race or obtain a waiver to be eligible for the playoffs, there’s too much at stake to gamble. In Larson’s case, sponsorship comes from within Rick Hendrick’s business portfolio, but there’s still too much on the line to risk the season for what boiled down to a fun fling.

Also, the hype surrounding Larson attempting the Double was good for NASCAR. While it wouldn’t be unprecedented for NASCAR to bask in the publicity while penalizing the driver who gave it to them (ask Ricky Stenhouse Jr.), it’s unlikely to apply here. And at the end of the day, if NASCAR will give waivers for drivers who it suspended, negating the punishment, there’s no reason to think it’d deny Larson.

But Larson’s foray into IndyCar racing does put the waiver system back into the spotlight. Should NASCAR make changes to the system going forward?

The system needs an upgrade, and there are three ways NASCAR could do it that make more sense than the current way of doing things.

First, NASCAR could keep things the way they are with a couple of notable updates. For one, a driver who is suspended should never receive a waiver. They were suspended for a reason. Giving them a waiver later is equivalent to telling them, “Well, you shouldn’t have done that, so we had to punish you, but don’t worry, it doesn’t really count.” It should count. Really.

In addition, NASCAR needs to lay out exactly what waivers will be granted for, and what they won’t. How many weeks missed is too many and should become “better luck next year”? Should it limit injury waivers to injuries sustained in the Cup Series and not include extracurricular activities? That might be a little too far, as drivers need to be able to have a life away from the track. 

Deals like Larson’s are a little different as he was simply running elsewhere. The naysayers aren’t wrong that the choice was ultimately Larson’s and he didn’t choose NASCAR. The flip side, though, is that Larson brought attention to the Coca-Cola 600, and that was to NASCAR’s benefit. Penalizing a driver for doing something good for NASCAR is a bad idea.

On the other hand, NASCAR could ditch the waiver system altogether and tighten the requirements for making the playoffs. A top-20 points requirement should already be in place, and perhaps a win should not override that. A driver could theoretically miss a race, maybe even two, and still make the cut.  NASCAR could still require a reason for missing races, but chances are, teams would not chance it without good reason. It would also eliminate the possibility of a driver missing many weeks, which is OK. At some point it should be a case of better luck next year, as long as there’s something in place to ensure they don’t come back too soon.

Fans wouldn’t have to wonder whether a driver should be allowed to miss a race for any reason because, in theory, they can miss as many races as they want for any reason. But not many are going to sit out for something frivolous, as it’s a big risk.

A final option would be to grant every driver a one-race waiver at the beginning of the year, to use however they choose. Any absences longer than one race would need to be reviewed.

Sure, it opens the door for a driver to take a week off for no reason, but that’s unlikely. First, the team would have to run a substitute driver for that week, so team owners and sponsors probably wouldn’t sign off on a vacation to Hawaii instead of a race (also true in the above option). The single race granted would also deter frivolous reasons because of the risk of an actual need for it later on. If NASCAR put its foot down on granting a second waiver if the driver later gets hurt after they used the first one because they don’t like Talladega Superspeedway, it wouldn’t become an issue.

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Stock Car Scoop: 2024's Greatest Day in Motorsports Postmortem

Based on precedent, Larson should absolutely receive a waiver this year. But NASCAR also needs to reexamine the system as a whole, close the suspended driver loophole tight and look at a way to make sure drivers can step out of the car for a week or two if they need to while making every effort to ensure that paying fans will see their favorite driver at the track, unless there are extenuating circumstances.

As for those other two big questions of the weekend? Yes, Hill should absolutely be suspended for his actions in hooking Custer at Charlotte. Intentionally wrecking other drivers is inexcusable.

And yes, calling the race was the right call if the track wasn’t absolutely ready to race. This crash was one of the scariest I’ve ever seen, and it happened because the track wasn’t quite dry. It ended OK, but it could have gone sideways in a hurry.

About the author

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Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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Bill B

I am a Larson fan, but it still rubs me the wrong way that he chose Indy over his day job. And yes, it did bring extra attention to both Indy and NASCAR, but in the end the Indy race ended up being in direct competition with the NASCAR race. How many people missed the first 50 laps of the NASCAR race because they were watching the end of the Indy race? I know I did. That has to rub NASCAR the wrong way. It cost them viewers and lowered their ratings. Sponsors can’t like that.

As for waivers, I really don’t care what the policy is. Just write it down in ink, and apply it consistently. Or just get rid of it altogether.

And if Hill should be suspended for purposely wrecking Custer at Charlotte, shouldn’t Busch have been suspended for purposely wrecking Stenhouse at the All Star race? You can’t have it both ways.

janice

lol nascar write something down in visible ink!! nascar be consistent…..lol!!!

i was wondering what the investment was for hendrick and the other for the indy ride. i’ve read where he took home $178,000, which includes the $50K rookie of the year honor bonus.

Wildcatsfan2016

I agrée with you Bill. Once it was apparent the 500 was going to conflict with NASCAR start, Larson should have made a real decision for his as you say day job. As it turned out, it didn’t work out for either race. A lackluster finish at Indy and then the rain delay bit him in Charlotte. Allgaier did a good job for the team.

Marcel Jones

Larson reminds me of Dobby from Harry Potter.

Tony

Noticing the hate for anyone who wants to diversify and run multiple series. But then again, a lot of folks on here are “NASCAR” fans, not “motorsports” fans so of course anything not under that banner is “less than.”

Bill B

Suppose your daughter was getting married and you paid a caterer a year in advance to cater the wedding. Then on the day of the wedding, the caterer takes a more lucrative job on the same day, and tells you they will be at your wedding when the other ends. You’d be OK with that?

mike

The difference with your metaphor is that Larson announced his plans to run the double last year, so there was plenty of time to prep.

Its not like Larson surprised everyone by saying, “Hey, I’m running Indy” and left people in a lurch. The day was planned, but sometimes things happen.

To follow your metaphor, Larson’s situation is more like a caterer who is booked to two gigs on the same day, and then has a substitute run the reception (either way, you get the food and the service…and Allgaier served up a pretty good meal with a 13th place finish at the 600).

I am a huge Larson fan, and I was disappointed he could not run both, but I would have been even more disappointed if he had not run Indy. He’s won the 600, he’s locked in the playoffs…AND, his bosses approved it. If Mr. H and Gordon had no issue with him prioritizing Indy, why should anyone else have issue with it?

I see no difference between Larson choosing what people are calling a ‘hobby’, versus when Kyle Busch chose his ‘hobby’ and broke his legs which led him to missing 11 Cup races, and got a waiver to then eventually win the title. Or…Chase Elliott getting hurt doing his ‘hobby’ and then getting a waiver.

With Larson, would it be different for people if he had gotten hurt in an Indy practice crash? Thanks be to God he didn’t get injured at all.

His bosses simply gave him permission to drive in the bigger race. Hendrick and Gordon know the Indy 500 is bigger than the Coke 600. And from a marketing/exposure standpoint, Larson shone a ton of light on NASCAR.

However, this also shines light on the mess that is the ‘Playoffs’. Looking at regular season points, Larson missed a race and fell to, what, 4th, 6 points back of the leader? He missed a race and is still, points-wise, in a position to win the Regular Season title still (a-la Corey Heim last year in Trucks).

Echo

This was NOT Larson’s decision, let’s get that out of the way right off. This was Rick’s decision and Larson’s sponsors decision. And I would bet anything that Rick cleared the waiver deal with Nascar before the decision was made. Except for that speeding penalty, Kyle was doing a great job for a rookie in an Indy car. He’s shown he can race the car not just drive it. Nascar is always going to do what it wants with waivers and penalties. They don’t care what anyone else thinks, period. It’s their show folks.

J T

As far as Larson is concerned, even after missing the 600 he is still well within the top 5 in points, plus he has 2 wins. For all practical purposes Larson is already locked into the playoffs.

RCFX1

Win a race and you’re locked in. Or are you?
….

Shayne

Y’all are making this too hard.

NASCAR should allow any driver to attempt the double with their blessings. No waiver needed. It’s a great thing for NASCAR and IndyCar.

.

Echo

I agree, nothing to this story.

Austin C

Haven’t seen anyone mention it but, no, getting suspended SHOULD NOT be changed to disallow a waiver. The punishment is missing a race and losing out on points (more if it’s any long term suspension) But if its simply a one race ban there is 0 reason for it to effectively end their season. Horrible take.

David Grimes

I’m a Kyle Larson fan. But in this case, I can see no reason for NASCAR to give a waiver. The “doing the double” thing is a stunt. Kyle had the opportunity to simply blow off the Indianapolis 500 when it became clear that the rain delay at Indianapolis would make it impossible for him to meet the requirements (i.e. to START every race unless there is a valid medical reason) the rulebook clearly sets out. He CHOSE to stick with the stunt. As it turned out, he did not even run a lap at the 600.

Sorry Kyle, I’m a fan but this year you should NOT be considered eligible for the playoffs.

Mike R

Spoken like a true idiot.

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