Twice now in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, there has been driver retaliation after close-quarter racing off a corner.
Close racing, but no contact between the drivers.
There was William Byron being upset with Denny Hamlin at Texas Motor Speedway. Byron hit the wall off Turn 2 when Hamlin was underneath him off the corner. A few minutes later, Byron hit Hamlin under caution, which sent the No. 11 spinning through the grass.
Two weeks ago in Las Vegas, Bubba Wallace bounced off the wall exiting Turn 4 when Kyle Larson came up underneath him. Again, there was no contact between them, but Wallace didn’t appreciate the spot Larson put him in, which led to hitting the wall.
One can go back even earlier in the year when Joey Logano hit the wall off Turn 2 at Darlington Raceway while racing Byron on a late restart. Logano, upon catching Byron on the last lap, ran straight into the back of him and sent Byron into the wall.
Why such reactions?
Heat of the moment. Fragile cars. Feeling you were done wrong. Dirty air. Respect.
Those were some of the answers when RACER polled various Cup Series drivers. Since every on-track incident is different, here is how nine drivers explained how the evolution of racing, and race cars, have something to do with how drivers react.
Corey LaJoie: “You just know how fragile these cars are when you hit the wall, and when you hit the wall you can almost consider your day being done if you don’t hit it perfectly square. If you bend a toe link, you’re done. The topic of conversation has been respect all year because these cars can take more cosmetic damage; you can use the bumper more. You’re not worried about tire rubs and stuff like that. But I think every spot is more crucial than it’s ever been because it’s so hard to pass because the disparity between cars is closer. You’re running somebody tight, and the guy is running you tight, and when you’re wronged and get stuffed in the fence, it makes you want to retaliate.
“It’s also hard to explain to people who don’t put a helmet on and are watching it from TV how lonely a feeling it is when you’re the car and only seeing (the race) through the windshield. It’s a different perspective. You don’t see the whole picture. You don’t see how tight the guy got; you don’t see who’s on that guy’s left rear quarter; you just don’t see the whole picture in the moment. You just want to get even. You feel like you were wronged, and sometimes you see red. You’re hot. You’re pissed off. You know how much money is riding on it, particularly guys in the playoffs. The level of excitement and frustration is exponentially heightened when you put the helmet on. It chokes off the blood flow from your brain and everywhere else.”
Christopher Bell: “You’re racing hard, and I would guess it’s heat of the moment. I was in a similar situation with the No. 99 (Daniel Suarez) at Darlington. We’re all racing hard, and the emotions are getting the best of us right now, it appears.”
Chase Briscoe: “There’s just a lot you can do from an aero side. You can not even touch somebody and you can wreck them. Now, if you drive to somebody’s left-rear quarter panel, it makes them so tight they can’t even turn. Going back to (Vegas) with the Larson and Bubba thing, yeah, Larson didn’t touch him, but I think they were going to probably wreck either way when they stay in the gas that long. But Kyle put Bubba in a really bad situation from an aero standpoint, and Bubba, I think, thought that he was going to leave him a little more room. And so Bubba stayed the gas, and whenever he got to the point where he realized that from an aero situation he was probably going to have to lift. Well, at that point, it’s too late because you thought you’re going to get left a little more room.
“I’ve fenced people this year doing the same thing, so it’s just easy to do and you don’t even honestly realize you’re doing it. I think Kyle, when he went in there, had every intention of clearing him and then when you don’t clear him, we saw Kyle lift at the last second. Well, at that point, it’s too late because the guy on the outside thought you were going to lift way earlier and it just it kind of puts you in a tight spot – especially off a turn. It just gets really tight in general. So, I think that’s where the frustration comes from.
“Just because you can still get wrecked without a guy touching you. It’s no different than at the end of the races. We’re all arrow-blocking each other and everything else, and we never touch each other, but it probably makes the guy mad.”
Ross Chastain: “The heat of the moment also goes into reactions on the track, and once you get out and look at it from a bigger picture, I generally have a different opinion of what happened. But in the moment, it’s a body of work that each driver has played their cards throughout the season or their careers with each other that ultimately makes it really bad in one person’s mind or just — oh, man — that’s not fun.
“These cars are packing air different than the old cars, so we all learn it, you see us taking advantage of it. It was lap, I don’t know…early, of Homestead, and it happened to me right in the middle (Turn) 3 and 4, just use the air, push me up and go right by me. I don’t mind it. I did it at the end of the race and got back by. So, it’s a tool in my book, but the body of work that you have with each other usually plays into how mad the other guy gets.”
Austin Cindric: “I’ll use the most recent example with Bubba and Kyle Larson at Las Vegas – although with the cars, there’s not much contact, for whatever reason, it seems like there is a pretty big aero effect when you’re almost equal side-by-side like that and the car on the bottom shifts direction, it really tightens up the outside car. I can’t say I have a way to explain that, but it’s happened enough; I’ve had it happen a lot to me. But it’s basically the guy that’s on the inside is making the guy on the outside feel like he’s completely disregarded. He’s pretty much using him up driving all the way up the racetrack and leaving him no space.
“You’re basically at the guy on the bottom’s mercy, whereas in years past it was the opposite. You’d have the guy on the inside be at the mercy of the guy on the outside. How close do you put it to his door? Now, if the guy on the bottom comes up, it sends both of them straight to the wall. There have been incidents where there is contact, and where there is not contact but it’s pretty much a respect thing or somebody maybe driving over their head. I don’t think Kyle wanted to put them in that spot, but he overdrove the corner in the situation they were racing and put them both in a bad spot. As a race car driver, I don’t want somebody else’s bad judgment being what ends my day. So, I feel like that’s why guys will get upset or frustrated when they get used up like that.”
Harrison Burton: “It used to be you’d have someone drive in on your door from the outside and you were on the bottom, you’d get all loose and spin out, and you’d see guys get mad over that. And now it’s the inside car, and I’ve had it happen a few times to me, and it really is a big moment of you get so tight as soon as that guy is really close to you, and guys are starting to do it now more and more as a tool to complete passes. So you drive up and basically drive as close as you can to the guy’s door, and they’re going to get tight, and then they have to lift, and all of a sudden, you’re in front of them.”
Brad Keselowski: “Probably just because they left their respective lanes on the track. In both situations, they left their respective lanes, and they caused the other car, whether it was by air or by a slight change of trajectory, to hit the wall. No doubt they weren’t going to hit the wall on their own. You can wreck somebody without hitting them. When you leave your lane, that’s usually an issue.”
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: “I don’t know if it’s over the line, it’s just racing, and it’s the way these cars drive. Texas, when we were two- and three-wide going down the frontstretch, I almost hit the front straightaway wall because when a car is on your inside, it gets so tight it just doesn’t turn for whatever reason. It’s just part of it. I’ve had to lift a few times racing guys when they get to the inside of you, and they’re pressing hard on the bottom, and you’re trying to hold them off. Generally, if they’re coming on the bottom, they’re trying to pass you, so they’re normally the faster car. If you were the car on the outside, you used to be able to put the car on the inside in a bad spot getting close to them. Now, if you get close to them, you put yourself in a bad spot. Some of the time, the outside guy puts themselves in a bad spot. It’s just a totally different race car than what we’re used to. Now, everything is good, and then, all of a sudden, it’s not in an instant.”
Austin Dillon: “Obviously it puts you in a tough spot because you’re running out of real estate, but you also have the choice to lift out there. I think it’s fair game until you’re to the point where you’re against the guy against the wall. If you don’t touch the guy, we know what the aero does when you get that close to the wall. You take the chance of knocking the wall down, so you’re still in control of the car until someone really puts their right front fender into your car. When somebody touches you, that’s different.”