The focus in NASCAR has yet to shift to the actual playoff racing as only three events remain to crown a new Cup champion.
But as the series heads to Homestead-Miami Speedway, the conversation over safety concerns has shifted to retaliation and what is over the line. Bubba Wallace has been suspended for Sunday’s race for intentionally wrecking reigning Cup champion Kyle Larson last week in a dangerous act of retaliation that NASCAR and most of Wallace's competitors found over the line.
Retaliation has been an ongoing issue across all three of NASCAR's national series this season with drivers either seeking payback on the track or after in physical confrontations. Wallace shoved Larson several times after their crash.
The Wallace incident collected fellow Toyota driver Christopher Bell, who is eligible for the championship and dropped to last in the eight-driver playoff field after he was crashed at Las Vegas last Sunday. Wallace had to apologize to Bell and the entire Toyota group of teams and drivers, and the incident now follows NASCAR into the middle race of the third round of the playoffs.
“I definitely think that the penalties need to be severe,” said Chase Briscoe of Stewart-Haas Racing. ”I feel like over the last couple years, it kind of got out of hand a little bit just because I think guys have felt comfortable to do certain things and know there are probably not going to be major repercussions.
“I think (NASCAR is) trying to get the ball back in their court to where they have a little more control probably. Which I think is probably needed. Look at how we race at the end of these road course races, there’s just no respect a lot of times, things like that.”
Briscoe raced his way into the round of eight two races ago on the final lap on the hybrid road course/oval at Charlotte with a frantic last-gasp drive that eliminated Larson from the playoffs by two points. But NASCAR has alleged that Briscoe's SHR teammate Cole Custer deliberately held up traffic to help Briscoe gain positions, and SHR's appeal of its $200,000 in fines and indefinite suspension of Custer's crew chief will be heard next week.
Briscoe is not alone in believing NASCAR had to act on the Wallace incident. Veteran Kevin Harvick posted on social media the sanctioning body needs to “protect us from ourselves.” Harvick admitted he's been in his share of retaliatory incidents.
Harvick indicated NASCAR needs tough leadership to get the drivers back in line.
“I’ve been guilty of several of these instances you see happening but I also had an iron fist of (NASCAR vice chairman) Mike Helton waiting for me after I’d acted like a fool,” Harvick wrote. “I believe an iron fist is needed going forward and that will trickle down.”
Bell was the most consistent driver in the first round of the playoffs, but faltered in the second round to be pushed into a must-win situation at Charlotte to advance into the round of eight.
Now he's last in the standings because he was crashed in the brawl between Wallace and Larson, and the Joe Gibbs Racing driver is feeling rather down about his chances to make it to the championship finale. Only four drivers will race for the Cup title at Phoenix in next month's season finale, and Joey Logano last week grabbed the first spot.
“It’s definitely been the highest of highs and the lowest of lows pretty back-to-back-to-back,” Bell admitted. “But with that being said, I feel like I’ve always done a really good job throughout my career of managing my emotions whenever it comes time to perform at the level that I have to perform at.”
Bell had said he was deflated before winning at Charlotte and thought the victory gave him fresh momentum to make a run at the title. Now he knows he's a longshot to make the championship four, as he's below the cutline with William Byron, Chase Briscoe and Ryan Blaney.
“Just sad and disappointed because we had it in the grasp of our hands, or at least we had a good finish at Vegas well within reach,” he said. “We did everything that we needed to do to put ourselves in position to go race for a championship in Phoenix and that’s gone now. It’s going to be very, very difficult to get there.
"I feel more optimistic now that time has passed, and I feel good about Homestead and competing for a win at Homestead. But I was definitely very sad. Very, very sad.”
Joe Gibbs Racing, meanwhile, recently signed the 27-year-old to a multi-year contract extension.
ODDS AND ENDS
NASCAR is expected to hold a third consecutive safety briefing with drivers on Saturday at Homestead. The briefings began at Charlotte two weeks ago to address safety concerns surrounding the new Next Gen car. Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch are both sidelined with concussions. ... Tyler Reddick, who has already been eliminated from the playoff field, is the FanDuel favorite to win Sunday. ... Rivals believe Denny Hamlin should be a strong contender based on an open test held at Homestead last month.
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