NASCAR hot topic moves to retaliation as playoffs roar

The focus in NASCAR has yet to be on playoff races, as there are only three events left to crown a new Cup champion.

But as the series heads to Homestead-Miami Speedway, the conversation about safety issues has shifted to retaliation and what’s above the line. Bubba Wallace was suspended for Sunday’s race for intentionally destroying defending Cup champion Kyle Larson last week in a dangerous act of retaliation that NASCAR and most of Wallace’s competitors found beyond the line.

Retaliation has been an ongoing issue across NASCAR’s three National Series this season, with drivers seeking revenge on the track or after physical confrontations. Wallace pushed Larson several times after they fell.

Wallace’s incident brought together fellow Toyota driver Christopher Bell, who is eligible for the championship and dropped to last in the eight-driver playoff field after being run over in Las Vegas last Sunday. Wallace had to apologize to Bell and the entire group of Toyota teams and drivers, and the incident now follows NASCAR in the middle race of the third round of the playoffs.

“I really think the penalties should be tough,” said Chase Briscoe of Stewart-Haas Racing. “I feel like over the last couple of years it’s gotten a bit out of hand just because I think guys have gotten comfortable doing certain things and know there’s no probably won’t have any major repercussions.

“I think (NASCAR is trying) to get the ball back in their court where they probably have a little more control. Which I think is probably needed. Look at how we run at the end of these road races, there there’s just no respect a lot of times, things like that.”

Briscoe battled his way into the Round of 16 two races ago on the final lap at the Charlotte hybrid/oval road course with a frantic final rush that knocked Larson out of the playoffs by two points. But NASCAR alleged that Briscoe’s SHR teammate Cole Custer deliberately blocked traffic to help Briscoe gain positions, and SHR’s appeal of his $200,000 fines and indefinite suspension of the chief executive. Custer’s team will be heard from next week.

Briscoe isn’t alone in believing NASCAR needed to act on the Wallace incident. Veteran Kevin Harvick posted on social media that the sanctioning body must “protect us from ourselves”. Harvick admitted he’s had his share of retaliatory incidents.

Harvick said NASCAR needs strong leadership to get drivers back online.

“I’ve been guilty of many of these cases you see happening, but I also had an iron fist of (NASCAR Vice President) Mike Helton waiting for me after acting like a jerk,” wrote Harvick. “I believe an iron fist is needed to move forward and that will reverberate.”

BELL DISAPPOINTMENT

Bell was the most consistent driver in the first round of the playoffs, but faltered in the second round to be pushed into an inescapable situation in Charlotte to advance to the round of 16.

Now he is last in the standings because he was crushed in the fight between Wallace and Larson, and the Joe Gibbs Racing driver is feeling rather depressed about his chances of making the championship final. Only four drivers will race for the Cup title in Phoenix in next month’s season finale, and Joey Logano clinched the top spot last week.

“It’s definitely been the highest of highs and the lowest of fairly back-to-back lows,” Bell admitted. “But that being said, I feel like I’ve always done a really good job throughout my career of managing my emotions whenever the time comes to perform at the level I need to perform.”

Bell had said he was deflated before winning in Charlotte and thought the victory had given him new momentum to try to win the title. Now he knows he is long to make the championship four, as he is below the line with William Byron, Chase Briscoe and Ryan Blaney.

“Just sad and disappointed because we had it in our hands, or at least we had a good Vegas finish on our hands,” he said. “We did everything we had to do to get in a position to race for a championship in Phoenix and it’s on now. It’s going to be very, very tough 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 on a multi-year contract extension.

TIPS

NASCAR is set to hold a third consecutive safety briefing with drivers on Saturday at Homestead. Briefings began in Charlotte two weeks ago to address safety concerns surrounding the new Next Gen car. Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch are both out with concussions. … Tyler Reddick, who has already been knocked out of the playoff field, is the FanDuel favorite to win on Sunday. … Rivals believe Denny Hamlin should be a strong contender based on an open test held at Homestead last month.

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Jessica C. Bell