Welcome back to Side By Side. There are always two sides to every story, and we’re going to bring them both, right here, every week. Two of our staff writers will face off on an important racing question … feel free to tell us what you think in the weekly poll and also in the comments section below!
This Week’s Question: After a late-race shove from Chris Buescher knocked him out of the top 5, Nationwide regular Justin Allgaier expressed his unhappiness with the way Buescher raced, saying, “Unfortunately when you’re not racing for points, when you’re racing those who are racing for points, it’s hard to sometimes not do something like that so you can prove yourself. But at the same time, it screws a lot of people up around you don’t even realize it.” Do drivers need to race the regulars who are racing for a title in a series differently than they might race the regulars in their own declared series?
Amy Henderson, Managing Editor: It’s Possible To Race With Respect and Still Race Hard
I admit it: I have a bit of a double standard when it comes to drivers racing in other series, and especially series that are considered a lower level than they are currently racing for championship points. And I do think that sometimes these drivers need to remember that while they’re there to learn and have fun, the series regulars are there to make a living and run for a title. And yes, sometimes that means taking a little extra care when racing around them.
Were Justin Allgaier’s comments justified on Saturday after he lost three spots on track to Chris Buescher, a development driver who’s not making either a Rookie of the Year or title run this year? Absolutely. After the race, Allgaier said, ““I went into the middle and there was a lapped car on the bottom and he just drove in and punted us out of the way. He is a very talented racecar driver; he’s going to be here for a lot of years. Unfortunately when you’re not racing for points, when you’re racing those who are racing for points, it’s hard to sometimes not do something like that so you can prove yourself, but at the same time, it screws a lot of people up around you don’t even realize it.”
Allgaier was talking about Buescher, but his comments could easily be applied to any driver from another racing series interloping elsewhere. While Allgaier was getting shoved around by Buescher, his teammate, Kyle Larson was pinched hard into the wall by Sprint Cup driver Kyle Busch as they came to the checkered flag. And while it’s true that Buescher didn’t outright wreck Allgaier and Busch didn’t outright wreck Larson, there was still a lot of damage to be fixed, and Turner Scott Motorsports doesn’t have quite the resources that Roush Fenway Racing or Joe Gibbs Racing have to fix the damage, either. And neither incident had to happen at all. Busch and Buescher are better drivers than that.
If you watch the finish of the race, Larson clearly held his line at the top of the track, while Busch crossed about a lane and a half to get to him to put on the squeeze. The move could have been avoided. Busch could have held his line, raced Larson hard but cleaner, and still would likely have taken the win with the No. 70 car in Larson’s way at the top. Busch made the choice to pinch him into the wall for the trophy rather than to simply race hard door to door.
And here’s where the double standard comes in: Had Busch pinched Kasey Kahne in the exact same way on Sunday for the Cup win, I’d have no problem with it. Had Buescher punted another car in an ARCA race, no problem there, either. On the other hand, if a Nationwide regular had wrecked Cup regulars on Sunday in a totally avoidable situation—and we’re talking avoidable situations, here, not someone having a tire go down and collecting a bystander? Definitely not cool. Bottom line: if these guys want to play in someone else’s sandbox, they can do better than that, especially the Sprint Cup drivers dropping down to pick up yet another trophy.
It’s possible to race someone hard and make it exciting while still racing clean. If you want proof of that, look at the end of the Texas Cup race last fall and how Brad Keselowski raced Jimmie Johnson. Lots of drivers do that every week at every level of racing, from the smallest of local short tracks to the Sprint Cup Series. It’s not a matter of just rolling over and letting the regulars win. It’s a matter of holding your line and not putting them in the wall. It’s a matter of being the guy to back out when it’s three-wide and not going to end well. It’s a matter of knowing that if a driver is at your rear quarter panel with his car’s nose that he has position and blocking is ill-advised. It’s a matter of remembering that you’re in it for a good time and the regulars are in it for all the marbles. It’s a matter of respect.
Should drivers from other series race regulars as hard as they can for the win? Of course they should, that why it’s called racing. But does that mean it’s acceptable to pinch a regular into the wall, or worse, for a win that means nothing but a trophy for you? No. There’s a fine line between racing hard and overdoing it, and at this level, a driver should be able to toe that line. There’s no need to cross it when there are no points on the line. Racing the regulars right won’t hurt the on-track product (in fact, it might improve it if fans truly don’t want to see wrecking), it won’t hurt the sport, and it won’t hurt a driver’s image in the sport. In some cases, taking the high road is a surefire way to gain respect and improve an image. No, the only thing that might get hurt from racing regulars with respect is an ego when the regular wins fair and square.
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: No Free Passes
Since when did qualifying for a NASCAR race morph into an act of generosity?
Since when did it become okay for drivers with well-sponsored, championship-contending teams to take offense when other drivers challenge them for room on the racetrack? Since when did it become an accepted practice for less-competitive teams to steer clear of those making a run at the season title? To me, this kind of thinking is antithetical to the true nature of racing.
As I see it, if a driver qualifies for an event, then that driver has every right to race however and wherever they see fit. If that means leaning on another driver who’s trying to earn championship points, then so be it. If an underfunded driver earns a spot in the starting lineup, aren’t they then, as well, eligible to earn points based on their performance? Isn’t such in-your-face, push-you-to-the-brink kind of racing how less-experienced drivers become title contenders in the first place?
Notice how I’m relating a lack of experience with a deficit in team funding here. I do that because that’s often the law of the NASCAR jungle – the drivers who snag the big sponsors are the drivers who demonstrate their ability to run up front and win races. Running up front means earning a decent amount of championship points, and earning a decent amount of championship points means having a decent shot at a season title. That’s not rocket science – that’s just common sense.
Where common sense takes a back seat to NASCAR’s philosophy of the world is when someone requests that less-competitive drivers on the grid give way to the drivers who are in contention for a championship. This is an affront to the teams who work hard to pinch their pennies, prepare their cars, and put their driver in the field. Anyone who’s entered has a shot of making the show, in the same way that anyone who makes the show has a chance of running well and maybe even taking home the big trophy (and the points that go with it).
If lesser competitors should kowtow to teams with a legitimate chance of winning the title, why, then, do we get bent out of shape when the NCAA men’s basketball tournament rolls around every March? Part of what makes “March Madness” so maddening is that every now and then an underdog upsets a national powerhouse.
If NASCAR governed college basketball, small schools would be warned to not tangle with Big Ten or Big East teams; the expectation would be for South Dakota State to roll over and allow the University of Michigan to snare an easy win. That may sound like the natural order of things in NASCAR Nation, but try making that suggestion to a point guard or forward who plays for South Dakota State – he’ll make a suggestion to you that likely isn’t found in the NASCAR rule book.
Whenever drivers, car owners, crew chiefs, or sanctioning bodies request that other teams steer clear of the drivers who are running for championships, I begin to feel leery about the true nature of motorsports competition. Anyone who’s watched more than ten minutes of any major racing series event will tell you that the team dynamics of motorsports are often regarded with suspicion. Add pressure from a sanctioning body, a sponsor, or a frustrated competitor who fears that their quest for a title will be more difficult than they initially assumed, and suddenly racing’s intensity and integrity gives way to insincerity – and it’s the team looking to rise from “zero” to “hero” that usually pays the price. As the adage goes, “nice guys finish last”.
No driver or team should be allowed to race free from pressure leveled by other cars on the track. Such thinking is detrimental to the overall philosophy of sports, and such behavior tends to diminish the impression we have of competitors and their selfish expectation. If a driver qualifies for a race, they have every right to race as hard they feel is necessary. If a driver is relegated (in March?!) to make room for others because of where they stand in the points, then the future of racing is even more bleak than it already looks.
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