Race Weekend Central

Truckin’ Thursdays: Pandora’s Box of Waivers Opened With Johnny Sauter

To waive, or not to waive. That is the question.

For Kyle Larson, that question was answered on Tuesday (June 5) when NASCAR finally granted him a waiver for missing the Coca-Cola 600 due to weather issues delaying the Indianapolis 500. Had he been denied, he would not be able to compete for the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series championship despite having two wins.

NASCAR spent several days to come to a final decision, something that is historically out of character for the sanctioning body. Generally, any driver who has requested a waiver usually is granted or denied one within a day or two of filing said request.

However, in NASCAR’s defense, ‘voluntarily skipping a race to compete in another race due to weather’ was probably never something it thought it had to deal with when it conceived of the playoffs and waiver system.

See also
Kyle Larson Receives Playoff Waiver From NASCAR

The debate over what constitutes a waiver has been mulled over for years, ever since the first iteration of the ‘win-and-you’re-in’ playoffs which began in 2014. It’s well-known that injuries and illnesses are grounds for a waiver, given that it’s not fair to end someone’s championship bid because they are not cleared or physically incapable of driving a car or truck.

Aside from Larson, waivers have been granted for outstanding measures, most notably personal or family matters. However, even still, waivers have been granted for even more outstanding circumstances.

Kurt Busch was granted a waiver in 2015 after he was suspended for off-track legal reasons. When he was found innocent, NASCAR reinstated him and granted him a waiver to continue racing for a championship. In 2020, following Larson’s suspension and release from Chip Ganassi Racing, Matt Kenseth was granted a waiver to compete for a championship despite missing the first four races of the year.

The line that should be drawn for waivers is rather confusing, as the only time a waiver has been denied has been for violating NASCAR’s substance abuse policy (Spencer Gallagher, Austin Wayne Self) or missing races due to lack of sponsorship (Grant Enfinger, Kaz Grala).

In the Craftsman Truck Series, the biggest cause for waiver is age. As the series serves as the first stepping stone toward racing on Sundays, drivers usually enter the series below the age of 18. However, those under the age of 18 cannot compete on tracks larger than 1.25-miles.

With Daytona International Speedway serving as the season-opener, full-timers under 18 are reliant on a waiver to keep their championship hopes alive right off the bat. So far, Tyler Ankrum, Taylor Gray and Jake Garcia all took advantage of age waivers their rookie seasons. And they definitely won’t be the last.

You might have noticed at this point that I haven’t mentioned NASCAR-related suspensions. Unlike Busch’s suspension, fans are more or less split on NASCAR granting waivers for suspending a driver for on-track activity. Some arguing for Larson to get a waiver included the idea that if it grants waivers for suspensions, then Larson should get one too.

That Pandora’s Box was opened back in 2019, the first time a driver was suspended for on-track activity in a regular season race during the waiver era. Surprisingly, that came in the Truck Series.

Johnny Sauter entered Iowa Speedway already locked into the playoffs after winning earlier in the season at Dover Motor Speedway. Likewise, Austin Hill was also locked in after winning the season opener at Daytona.

The two came together on lap 137 of the 200-lap event at the 0.875-mile oval, with Sauter’s No. 13 backing into the turn 4 wall. Just two laps later, as the field was pacing around under caution, Sauter retaliated against Hill, sending the No. 16 into the turn 1 wall and around. Sauter continued to run into Hill until the latter was fully backwards before driving off.

NASCAR, as it usually does after a retaliation under caution, immediately parked Sauter for the remainder of the event. Hill was able to continue on despite the damage and finished 12th.

However, NASCAR decided that parking Sauter wasn’t enough, and chose to suspend him for the next race at World Wide Technology Raceway. ThorSport Racing tapped its then-part-time driver Myatt Snider to fill in for Sauter.

This was the first time in the playoff era that NASCAR had suspended someone for on-track chicanery. Further compounding the issue was the fact that Sauter was already locked into the playoffs by virtue of his Dover win.

For the first time, a driver was removed from championship contention due to a disciplinary action by NASCAR.

Except, he wasn’t.

In the same announcement of Sauter’s suspension, it was noted that he would maintain his championship eligibility. This meant that Sauter had automatically been granted a waiver to continue his quest for a championship.

That decision ultimately opened the flood gates for those who questioned or flat out disagreed with the move. Ever since, the idea of a waiver has been seen as something handed out like candy rather than something that is used in extreme circumstances.

See also
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It also raised the question about the point of suspensions and waivers if they’re just going to essentially be brushed off like it was nothing. A suspension really isn’t a disciplinary measure if you reward the suspended driver with a waiver for the playoffs.

The topic of waivers came back into the limelight following two separate suspensions in 2023. Josh Williams was suspended a race in the Xfinity Series for abandoning his car on the frontstretch at Atlanta Motor Speedway. A few weeks later at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Chase Elliott was suspended for intentionally wrecking Denny Hamlin in the Coca-Cola 600.

In both cases, they received waivers, likely due to the precedent NASCAR set with Sauter. Now, just about five years removed from the Sauter-Hill incident, we are still discussing whether or not the use of waivers should be amended or removed altogether.

While that remains to be seen, the bottom line is that the debate for waivers can be traced back to that day in Iowa in 2019, when Sauter lost his cool, and NASCAR both punished and rewarded him for it.

It’s highly likely that without this situation, Larson’s waiver may have been even tougher to grant.

About the author

Anthony Damcott joined Frontstretch in March 2022. Currently, he is an editor and co-authors Fire on Fridays (Fridays); he is also the primary Truck Series reporter/writer. A proud West Virginia Wesleyan College alum from Akron, Ohio, Anthony is now a grad student. He is a theatre actor and fight-choreographer-in-training in his free time. 

You can keep up with Anthony by following @AnthonyDamcott on Twitter.

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