In years past, the NASCAR Cup Series Playoff races have been a predictable decrescendo in competition seeing only the remaining Championship eligible drivers fighting up front for wins with the rest of the pack quietly pacing behind, at least generally speaking. For 2022 however it’s been a refreshing change of pace. With nearly the entire field still in the mix on a week to week basis the stretch run of the season has been much more enjoyable in this humble writer’s opinion. Non-playoff wins are more likely than ever and no one seems to be phoning it in simply because they’re out of the running for the big shiny cup. Still, some narratives have been less than comfortable in that same space. Concerns about business, accountability, and most importantly safety in the Cup series are an unpleasant base alloy mixed with the wonderful things we’ve been enjoying alongside. Each branch of this issue came to a head in the early stages of the South Point 400 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday.
Vegas’ October race was looking just as competitive as its Spring counterpart, with comers and goers on short and long runs, all in all shaping up for the pretty competitive race we’re coming to know on intermediate tracks with the new generation of car. After a restart in the first stage, Kyle Larson made it three wide with Kevin Harvick and Bubba Wallace, creating a pinch at the exit of turn four. Wallace then slapped the outside wall and what followed will be talked about for many weeks to come.
What looked to many like an intentional “right rearing” from Bubba Wallace causing Larson to crash heavily into the wall (while also eliminating Playoff driver Christopher Bell), this was made even more clear after Bubba Wallace walked from his disabled car down to the wreckage of Larson’s 5 car to confront the driver all over again.
Confirmed in the post wreck interview, Bubba Wallace felt that Larson ran him into the wall and his refusal to lift resulted in the accident. Opinions on the internet during and after have been ranging from fairly reasonable racing observations all the way down to the losers feeling emboldened enough to wear out the “N” on their keyboard…but most of the narrative is boiling down to what to do in regards to punishment. MOST people seem to think that some sort of penalty should be handed down ranging to everything from anger management classes to a long term suspension. While I don’t think any punishment that eventually comes from this will be biblical in stature, I think it’s important to examine just what mistakes were made, and what kind of penalty we might be realistically looking down.
When considering the actual accident, NASCAR has data available that can give more information as to the acceleration and so forth about how the 45 car reacted after the initial contact…but for all intents and purposes we can expect the contact to be likely deemed intentional. This is an incident that usually gets you parked for that race, which was made moot by both cars being destroyed, so further penalties might be issued beyond that. Moreover, to quote a famous Chevy team, the timing of this could not have been worse.
The last few weeks of the Cup season have been a referendum on the subject of car safety, most notably to rear end impacts. Remarkably, despite the primary driver of that very 45 car Kurt Busch announcing his semi retirement after a long absence caused by a seemingly low impact rear end collision…Bubba Wallace appeared to skirt current narrative and cause a high speed accident in what we all hope was a moment of weakness.
When considering precedence Matt Kenseth was suspended for two weeks for taking out Joey Logano, a Playoff driver in retaliation for an incident weeks before. While it was certainly pre mediated and not that “moment of weakness,” it was indeed at the slowest race track on the circuit at Martinsville. And still, we haven’t even covered what happened after the crash.
A lot of the red faced narrative from Sunday has to do with Bubba Wallace pushing a safety official when walking back to the pits, and while that may work into the eventual penalty I’m going to steer away from that and focus more on Wallace’s intended actions from the crash itself. We can all picture a famous NASCAR fight in our heads. Some on or off the track throw down that made social media come alive or even put stock car racing on the map for many others, we’ve all got our favorite. For me however, I don’t consider Sunday’s incident to really be a fight, more of an exercise in attempted bullying. Kyle Larson appeared not to be looking for a physical altercation, and yet Bubba Wallace shoved him (with quite a bit of force it appears) several times almost begging for the Hendrick driver to fight back. Wallace was frustrated no doubt, but when you’re ALSO the guy that caused the major wreck, the 50 foot walk down to the other car to spoil for a rumble just looks plain shitty. Still, we can’t take that to tell the whole story here, as even Larson said himself in an interview that drivers of all levels have reacted like this before. We have to look at the whole picture, and put it into 2022 context.
Unfortunately for Bubba Wallace, someone was going to be made an example of in regards to the safety concerns put forth by many in and around racing in 2022…and the 23XI veteran driver looks to have just volunteered. At first glance, the intentional wreck deserves a steep punishment, at bare minimum a fine and a points deduction, but I don’t think we can stop there. In recent years, NASCAR has claimed that walking away from your own car for any reason besides your own safety is to be considered for punishment. Long gone are the days of Cale and Donnie having a scrap on track, or of Jeff Burton sticking it to Jeff Gordon after an accident. NASCAR has tolerated these sort of things on pit road after a race, but if we are to have a “Kevin Ward” rule in NASCAR, it’s going to need enforcement at some point. Further still, heaven forbid if Kyle Larson has sustained a concussion or other injury at the moment of accident (it appears Larson was uninjured) Wallace’s act of shoving him into his own car could very well have been deemed unforgivable.
I realize as I write this I sound to myself like a wet blanket, making ticky points about one driver’s actions, but I think this needs to be considered as “volume” instead of singular significance. Bubba Wallace got a couple of season’s worth of misplaced anger out in the span of about 5 minutes. When you take the blind momentary rage of a Kyle Busch on track retaliation, the bullheaded physical response of a Tony Stewart man-to-man altercation, and the net result of a Matt Kenseth squeeze play all in the same damn incident, something more has to be done.
Like it or lump it, Bubba Wallace has a real impact and influence on NASCAR, and you can see it by taking three seconds to look at any social media post on the sport. The rules of NASCAR are never evenly applied, and as such the needle movers of the sport will face different punishments than those in other series or other places in stock car racing. The response and action from NASCAR will be felt throughout our little world in the days leading up to Homestead, no matter how small or large the disciplinary boom. Whatever happens, I hope it’s the best thing for Bubba Wallace and for NASCAR, because what we’re building right now is just too promising to throw away, and this is no time to lose our heads.
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