We want raw emotion from our racing stars. The frontstretch, post-burnout interview spawned from that desire. When the drivers get out of the car, we don’t want them to cool down, we want to see and hear that raw emotion.
Then when a driver gives it to us and it goes against our ideals or hurts our feelings, we get butthurt.
That happened last weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, and while the delivery might have been a little rough around the edges, the message that was sent had more than a little bit of truth to it.
Kyle Busch has been his own worst enemy for most of the 2019 Cup season. The new package has taken quite a bit of the racing out of the drivers’ hands, and he is frustrated with it. As a result, he’s pushed things a little too hard from time to time, and it has cost him dearly.
Sunday was no different, when a brush with the wall on lap 2 put him two laps down in the first 10 laps of the event. For 170-plus laps, Busch and his team fought to get back on the lead lap. He finally got there and charged through the field, heading toward a top-five, if not a top-three finish.
But with about 20 laps to go, Busch was following William Byron into turn 3 when they caught the lapped car of Garrett Smithley. Smithley did as lap-down cars are instructed and held his line. Byron darted out to pass Smithley low, and by the time Busch realized how close he was to the No. 52, he was unable to make an evasive move and control his car.
The end result was heavy contact with the back of Smithley’s car and heavy damage to the front of the No. 18. The aerodynamic disadvantage for Busch resulted in his lap times dropping three seconds a lap. He finished 19th.
Post-race, Busch was asked what happened. He pulled no punches and bemoaned the fact that at the top echelon of stock car racing there were people competing who had never won a late model race. His insinuation was that some drivers should not be allowed on the track due to their lack of success in lower series.
But while racing success at the grassroots level should obviously have some influence on the advancement of drivers up the ranks, it is not the only determining factor. NASCAR has a process in place that approves drivers for competition at the regional level, national level and ultimately the Cup Series. People cannot just show up with a car, purchase the necessary license and go race. They must submit a request to NASCAR, and that application is reviewed and a decision is made to allow them to compete or not. Determining factors are age, number of races, types of tracks contested and success. Demonstrating that you know HOW to race is as important as demonstrating that you can win races.
During the post-race social media firestorm that erupted from Busch’s comments, Smithley and Joey Gase, who somehow got sucked into the discussion, defended themselves by challenging Busch to run races in their equipment. Others attacked Busch and claimed he never had to run in inferior equipment during his career. Busch responded by pointing out that winning a lot at the lower levels will get you opportunities in better seats at the upper levels.
There is truth to Busch’s statements. In the modern world of motorsports, the expense of running a competitive car requires big sponsorship. The means of attracting big sponsorship is either winning races, which puts you on TV quite a bit, or having a tie to a family or company that is wealthy and will foot the bill. Begrudge it all you want, but a wealthy parent who has a child that wants to race is going to give them that opportunity. It’s no different from if they want to jump show horses or play tennis. Everyone knows there are some trust fund babies that race, and that is one of the benefits of wealth.
That said, the most important part of the entire Las Vegas post-race is that there are drivers on the track who are not spatially aware. Corey LaJoie tweeted after the race that there are several drivers, like himself, who have won at the lower levels but are not in top-tier equipment. The thing they do have working for them is they have the experience and knowledge of where they are racing, who they are racing and how to avoid having a negative impact on other peoples’ races. As faster cars catch them on the racetrack, they have the knowledge of when and where to race and when to get out of the way. They also have the ability to properly get out of the way.
There are basically three classes running on any given Sunday: the cars who run for the top 20-25, the midpack cars who run for 26th – 32nd and the field-fillers. The field-filling cars are often the ones who have drivers in them who have purchased a ride or brought enough money to race but not win. It is those cars to which Busch was referring — not the teams, but the drivers who have not necessarily succeeded at the lower levels but have the money to move up the ladder.
However, whether Busch likes it or not, they have gone through the process and been approved for the top tier of stock car racing. They have run local races, ARCA Menards Series, K&N Pro Series, Whelen Modifieds, IMSA, NTT IndyCar Series or something else that has given them the knowledge of how to race. That knowledge was developed enough for NASCAR to approve them for Cup competition.
In hindsight, Busch might have chosen a different way to phrase his criticism, but it was still justified for some of the cars that race at his level. It was not, however, justified for Smithley. Smithley held his line, did not move erratically and left Busch room to pass on either side. Busch’s spotter may have told him something was going to happen, but the ultimate responsibility for the racecar is in the hands of the driver, and Busch didn’t handle the situation properly.
The experience of drivers at the back of the Cup field has been less than the drivers racing for wins since Red Byron was waxing the fields at fairgrounds across the Southeast. What we have in the field today is no different from the early years of the sport. When situations arise that cause the front pack cars to get crossed up with the back of the pack cars, emotions can run high.
We still want the drivers to share that emotion when they get out of the car. Don’t hold that emotion against them, and don’t inhibit a driver from chasing their dream just because they have less experience and equipment than the guys at the front of the pack.