Did You Notice? … Kevin Harvick and Chase Elliott isn’t the only rivalry to heat up in the final few weeks? Some other drivers butting heads have flown under the radar a bit with these two taking up so much air in the room.
Here’s three other sets of people in the NASCAR community to keep an eye on, wishing each other a Merry offseason and a Happy Christmas in their own way.
Tyler Reddick vs William Byron: Sparks have flown between these two in the last two weeks. First, at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL, Byron was fighting for the win late in the race when contact with Reddick sent him off course.
“I don’t get it,” Byron said after the incident. “It’s just lack of awareness. … It was obviously a mistake, but it doesn’t really make any difference. If the roles were reversed, and I was out of the playoffs, and he was in it, I definitely would have more awareness.”
“Made a mistake,” Reddick admitted after the race. “I hate that. Wasn’t in any way what I was trying to do. If I was trying to do that, I would have hit him a lot harder.”
That mea culpa seemed like that would be the end of it. Then came Sunday (Oct. 17) at Texas Motor Speedway. Both drivers had strong cars again, running inside the top five and battling the Team Penske Fords of Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney for position. Reddick continued to get aggressive with Byron, trading paint and not teaming up by manufacturer the same way the Fords appeared to be doing against them.
“He’s a dumb son of a b*tch,” the Byron radio blared. “Motherf****er needs to look at his emblem on the hood.”
In the end, the two got separated after Reddick cut a right-rear tire. He clawed back up the field and, by the final series of restarts, they were back together, superglued to each other and fighting tooth and nail. Only inadvertent contact from Harvick, nearly spinning Reddick, kept those two from running side-by-side the final 10 laps for second.
Reddick didn’t mention Byron after the race. It seems like everything is fine on his end, as any aggression appears unintentional. But check out this quote from Byron after Texas when asked about how well his team is performing.
“I saw that last week,” Byron said of his team’s speed. “Just didn’t finish it off with the contact there, but yeah, this week we had a pretty good run and had a shot at a win.”
Note how he felt compelled to bring up the contact, even though there’s no guarantee the No. 24 would have won at Charlotte. It’s clear the incident still irks Byron, and the fact these two are clicking speed-wise means they’ll be at or near the front the next three weeks. There are a few more opportunities for things to boil over.
At the time, Briscoe was penalized by NASCAR for driving through the grass, something the driver claims he didn’t fully understand at the time of the wreck. Hamlin disagreed with that assessment, citing what he felt was a “lack of awareness.” (Sound familiar?)
When Briscoe spun Hamlin at Indy, it dropped Hamlin from the lead to a 23rd-place finish, a difference of 26 points. Hamlin lost the regular season title to Kyle Larson by 18 points.
This week, their war of words sparked again on Instagram after the two made contact during a dismal day for Hamlin at Texas. It wasn’t the only time the No. 11 banged into someone else, having cut a tire racing with Blaney earlier in the day. That contact appeared to be inadvertent, just like the incident with Briscoe.
Hamlin didn’t see it that way.
“There’s cars racing for a championship,” Hamlin said in one of his posts. “In case you forgot about taking out the leader and costing him one championship already this season.”
Briscoe held his ground, claiming he was “racing for a job” and felt Hamlin was coming after him. Doesn’t sound like a guy who’s going to move out of the way at Martinsville Speedway in two weeks, that’s for sure.
Kyle Busch vs Steve O’Donnell: A driver versus a NASCAR official? Seems like the type of fight that happens on a weekly basis. But Busch seemed to accelerate things at Texas when he publicly revealed NASCAR Vice President Steve O’Donnell’s email on his scanner feed.
While Busch has been highly critical of the sport’s intermediate package several times over the past few years, throwing out private information is taking a few extra steps. That’s testing where the line is, plain and simple. The driver’s temper has been on display several times this year, most recently at Darlington Raceway when he faced a $50,000 fine for the way he ran over some cones (and nearly innocent bystanders) while taking his wrecked car to the garage area.
NASCAR loves Busch when he plays the Bad Boy persona. Remember their “Boys, Have At It” edict from years ago? The question is, how much is too much? How far will they let criticism of their officiating and packages go, especially with the Next Gen car on the horizon? Don’t forget, it was Busch who walked into victory lane after winning the first Car of Tomorrow race only to say the car “sucks” back in 2007.
It’ll be interesting to see if NASCAR sends a message his way over the final few races, especially if Busch’s criticism increases if he suffers through the same troubles at Kansas.
Did You Notice? … This weekend will be the final 550-horsepower race with the current car before the 2022 conversion to the Next Gen chassis? It’s also the one-year anniversary of when this intermediate-style package appeared to wear out its welcome.
It was the closing laps of Kansas during the Round of 8 one year ago. Kevin Harvick, who had led 85 laps, was cruising out front until a late-race caution for Reddick. During a final round of pit stops, Joey Logano beat Harvick out and controlled the field on the restart. The No. 22 scooted out ahead, then spent the final 40 laps blocking out front while clean air and limited horsepower left Harvick powerless to pass him.
Time and time again, the No. 4 snuck just barely inside of the No. 22 only to fall short of making the pass. Turns out running wide open with this low-horsepower package leaves the cars so evenly matched it’s impossible to gain an edge on similar tires.
“We just needed to get off pit road first,” Harvick said that day despite having the fastest car. “It came down to controlling the restart.”
Strategy, not speed was what won the race. It proved to be a turning point in Harvick’s career, as he failed to make the Championship 4 after a dominant season and hasn’t won in over a year. More importantly, it served as the best example yet of how the 550 hp races often play out, cars stuck in place down the stretch with an inability to pass each other.
Despite spending the final 20 minutes with the leaders almost side by side, Kansas polled just 40.8% in The Athletic’s Jeff Gluck’s Good Race Poll, the lowest out of 10 races polled at Kansas. The public dissatisfaction over the ending from fans was so strong, I agreed with this statement from Gluck that the NASCAR package had reached a turning point.
The response to this race is absolutely fascinating. Feels like a tipping point in dislike for the package.
— Jeff Gluck (@jeff_gluck) October 18, 2020
In the year since that finish, I still feel that way. Sure, at tracks with good tire falloff, we’ve seen some races where drivers have been able to pass. Blaney’s late charge in March, using lapped traffic to sneak by Kyle Larson and win Atlanta Motor Speedway, sticks out.
But too many of these 550-hp events have played out in two ways.
Option A: After a wild restart, a driver in clean air sneaks out front and pulls away from the field. That person goes on to dominate the event, often winning by several seconds. Few caution flags other than stage breaks limit the ability for drivers to work on their cars, making early-race mistakes fatal. Those who end up with poor track position are often stuck in place, unable to advance over long green-flag runs.
2021 Examples: Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Coca-Cola 600 (327 laps led by Larson, 10-second win), Atlanta in July (Kurt and Kyle Busch pull away from the field, Kurt has a 1.2-second win)
Option B: A clean race early turns crazy over the final stage as drivers get aggressive during the one time they can grab track position quickly: green-flag restarts. A flurry of late cautions makes the race seem better than it really was, a surprise winner occasionally emerging through pit strategy or short-run speed.
2021 Examples: Kansas in May (four cautions in final 37 laps, Kyle Busch wins after Larson — with 132 laps led — was in cruise control up front), Michigan International Speedway in August (Blaney steals one from Hendrick Motorsports after two late cautions)
Sunday’s race at Texas was a mix of the two. Once Larson got out front, he was unstoppable, leading 218 consecutive laps to end the event. But there was every possible opportunity for him to slip up after six cautions during the final 68 laps of the race. On each restart, chaos reigned, while Larson survived in part through teammate Byron becoming a pseudo-blocker in second while trying to win the race himself.
People wondered if the 550-hp package would disappear with the Next Gen car. That won’t happen as 2022 rules kept the same aero setup (including the eight-inch spoiler) for intermediate races. Either NASCAR executives are happy with how these races are turning out or there’s confidence this new car is a bit of a cure-all, something NASCAR President Steve Phelps recently confirmed.
— Adam Stern (@A_S12) October 13, 2021
My read is it’s a little of both. They better be right on the second part.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off …
- I think it’s worth repeating: before 2021, Larson won a total of six times in seven years in the Cup Series. This year? He’s won eight times in 33 starts. Sure, Hendrick Motorsports was a jump up in equipment but that’s a big step after being out of the sport for most of 2020.
- How hard is it to pick a winner this weekend? Six of the seven drivers fighting for a spot in the Championship 4 have won a Cup race at Kansas (Lone exception: Blaney). That same group has captured eight of the last 10 Kansas wins. A Ford, Toyota and Chevrolet have all been victorious here at least once in the last three seasons. Of course, Larson could run away with things again. If not? It’s anyone’s race.
- With Ty Dillon signed by GMS Racing, only Kaulig Racing’s second car, Spire Motorsports’ second car and potentially a second car at Front Row Motorsports and some Rick Ware Racing cars are left without a driver for 2022. Five full-time NASCAR Cup drivers remain as free agents: Anthony Alfredo, Matt DiBenedetto, Quin Houff, Ryan Newman and Ryan Preece. Only DiBenedetto sits inside the top 20 in the current standings.
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