Race Weekend Central

Fire on Fridays: When Do NASCAR Drivers Mature?

These days, there are two paths to becoming a front-running NASCAR Cup Series driver.

The first, and more common, sees guys like Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell and William Byron identified as superstars in the making from their teenage years. Their ascent up the NASCAR ladder is funded by one of the sport’s biggest teams or a manufacturer development program. They win championships at the NASCAR Camping World Truck or Xfinity series level, earn themselves a ton of race wins and fans and explode onto the scene with sky-high expectations.

Then it takes them a couple of years, and maybe a jump from a satellite team to the mothership, to gather the skills and experience they need to run with the big dogs and, usually at around the 100-start mark, emerge as a regular race winner. Reddick, Bell and Byron have all crossed this mark in 2022, earning the first multi-win seasons of their career and impressing viewers.

The other path, the one less traveled by, was the one favored by old-school NASCAR heroes. Dale Earnhardt and Mark Martin both bounced around back-of-the-pack teams gathering experience at the Cup level, so that when that big break finally came around, they’d be prepared to explode out of the gate in Rod Osterlund or Jack Roush’s top-tier equipment.

This is the path taken by Bubba Wallace and Ross Chastain, both of whom ground it out at less-competitive teams for years before finally achieving success in the form of two wins apiece with high-profile moves to exciting new programs in 23XI Racing and Trackhouse Racing Team, respectively. 

But something else unites Wallace and Chastain; a twist on what could easily be fan-favorite underdog stories. As of last Sunday, Oct. 16, they are the two drivers who’ve done the most embarrassing, egregious examples of intentional contact this season, creating a dark cloud over career-high seasons for both. 

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After claiming his first career pole position and leading 22 laps in August’s race at Michigan International Speedway, Wallace teared up in post-race interviews.

“I’ll wear this one on my heart for a while,” Wallace, who fell just under three seconds short of his second career victory, said. “I failed everybody. … I want to win so bad, and this was the best opportunity.”

Of course, we have the benefit of hindsight and know what happened just a few weeks later. At Kansas Speedway, Wallace took the lead late and held off all comers to claim a jubilant second career win. And at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, he ran up front early, even winning the first stage.

Until, well …

Wallace wears his emotions on his sleeves and has historically been open about what he’s thinking and feeling. That makes this column easy to write. 

The driver of the Nos. 23 or 45 (or I guess this week neither) is at a crossroads in his career. He’s crossed over from underdog driver who can only win at superspeedways, through the limbo that was the first year-and-a-half of 23XI to become a driver who regularly contends at the front on NASCAR’s bread-and-butter 1.5-mile racetracks. Michigan, Kansas and Vegas — he could have won all of them. He was fast at Nashville Superspeedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway, and had he not been suspended, he’d likely add Homestead-Miami Speedway to that number, let alone the pack races at which he made his name.

“This was the best opportunity,” Wallace lamented after Michigan.

“I’m kind of new [to] running up front … I don’t lift,” is what he said after Las Vegas. 

He’s right about one thing — he is new to running up front. The question is, will he get used to it?

I don’t mean will he continue to have the speed. At this point, I that’s settled. Wallace and 23XI have the speed to run up front consistently.

The question is, will he change the way he thinks about it? Until the win at Kansas, running up front was a rare occurrence for Wallace, especially at a non-superspeedway race. He needed to win, both to legitimize his career in the minds of some (including his own) and to guarantee his team a spot in the playoffs. From now on, he needs to win for the same reason Reddick, Joey Logano or Chase Elliott does. 

Or Chastain, for that matter. 

Chastain’s career likewise took the old-school path at multiple NASCAR levels. He busted his butt at JD Motorsports in the Xfinity Series to earn a few one-off starts with Chip Ganassi Racing, then did the same thing to earn himself a seat at the upstart Kaulig Racing. He was doing it simultaneously at the Cup level too, paying his dues in Premium Motorsports’ No. 15 before he earned his big break at Ganassi and later Trackhouse. 

Chastain fired off his first two wins in rapid succession at Circuit of the Americas and Talladega Superspeedway in early 2022 before cooling off a bit as the year went on. 

Well, cooling off in terms of wins. He stayed just as fired up as he’s always been behind the wheel. Just ask Denny Hamlin.

Chastain, the humble watermelon farmer, has had to fight tooth and nail for everything in his career, and that’s always been reflected in his driving. His first start for Ganassi in the Xfinity Series saw an overaggressive move to defend the lead from Kevin Harvick that eliminated the both of them from contention, prompting Harvick to say, “he’ll never get to drive many [good cars] again.”

Chastain responded, “I was just trying to race … if I made a mistake, it’s on me.”

That’s what has made covering Chastain so much fun this year. He drives like a maniac then calmly explains how he considers it all fair in love and stock car racing (and usually in a rain-delay interview with Parker Kligerman that seems to last 20 minutes).

Chastain is in the same boat as Wallace. He treats every race he’s running up front as his last ever shot to win. And of course, it might be. It might be for any driver at any point. In many ways, that’s what makes the two of them such an exciting addition to the front-runners and has made this wild 2022 season one for the ages. 

Would you rather they drive like Alex Bowman

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2-Headed Monster: Was Bubba Wallace's Penalty Harsh Enough?

Bowman followed a similar path to Chastain, spending a few years as a journeyman at BK Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing before a stint as Hendrick Motorsports’ simulator driver earned him his big break for NASCAR’s winningest team.

Nothing better sums up Bowman’s first three seasons at HMS than the 2019 spring race at Talladega. Bowman shoved his teammate Elliott to the lead with four laps remaining, then held off the rest of the pack to ensure his fellow HMS driver took the checkered flag. It almost looked like the Arizona native didn’t want to win.

Early HMS-era Bowman was a company man through and through, one who didn’t want to do anything to put his newfound job security at risk. I don’t blame him for that. But after a 2021 season that saw him win four races (each in a more farcical manner than the next) and sign his first multi-year extension, he became a bit more aggressive, a bit more edgy and a lot more sarcastic. 

Returning to his one-win-per-year pattern and eliminated early from the playoffs due to a concussion, we’ll have to wait a bit longer to see what the new Bowman does with his back against the wall, but I’m willing to predict it won’t be all bark and no bite. 

The signs are there. In 2021, Bowman matured into his final form as a Cup star willing to ruffle a few feathers on the way to the checkered flag, and Chastain and Wallace will soon have to move in the opposite direction. It’s likely that this turn of pace for the Nos. 1 and 45 will continue into 2023 and beyond. As for when they’ll stop racing like every lap is do-or-die, start racing smarter.

As for whether or not they’ll start winning more regularly, only time will tell. 

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kb

MDW is 29 years old and has been around a long time at the tracks. He knows how to act but stubbornly refuses to do so it seems. Arrogance not earned; entitlement not earned. He has always been a PIA and high maintenance pearl clutching drama queen. He isn’t changing, it is as they say..in his DNA. To say this incident(s) is going to “teach” him, is just his PR team bullshit. He should know better already.

Everybody has bad days and should have done some things differently, but these series of events committed by MDW were out of control nuts and certainly out of the spectrum of what is considered usual normal behavior when pissed off at the racetrack.

Echo

Explain to me how a truck driver skipped doing well in Xfinity and all of a sudden he’s driving a JGR car and miraculously learned how to drive in the middle of this year. Why is he even here !

kb

I dunno…Rev. Jesus Joe has The Lord on speed dial?

DoninAjax

As soon as the ROI drops to a level the owners and sponsors don’t like and the money stops he’ll be gone. Danica 2.0.

wildcats2016

ummm never.

John

Wallace refuses to grow up, still playing the petty race card or the everyone picks on me line whenever he can. He needs to be tossed out before he actually kills someone. Apparently NASCAR doesn’t have the guts, so Jordan needs to step up and see the danger he is. MJ is the only one who could get by with facing the truth.

Rick Coltman

Babba; liar, liar, liar. This so-called man has no concept of the truth, or how to tell the truth, or even face the truth. Babba was losing positions in that race from the first position to dropping back big time, as his car lost its tires and grip. As Larson was about to pass him, he lost his constatation on the where he was on the track and put that constatation on Larson’s position. As a result of his lack of constatation, he hit the wall and then bounced into Larson. His anger now was focused on Larson, instead of the lack of his own driving skills and his of own stupidity. He blamed Larson, for his own stupid mistake and then wrecks Larson and Bell who unfortunately got drawn into Babba’s stupidity. The rest we all know.

Nascar gives Babba a one race suspension for his display of on-track anger and show of extreme stupidity.

However, does Babba resect this? Noooo, what he comes out with on race day is, a text joking about his situation “Sitting at home having a piece of Humble pie brought to me by Door dash.” How disrespectful is that to Nascar’s board of officials, team 23XI, Denny Hanlin and Michel Jordon the owners and to Doordash the sponsors of his team’s car? He seems to turn his nose up at the situation as a minor slap on the hand. It’s a joke so what, one race no big deal.

Well, it is Babba you have shown that you can’t control your anger. You have displayed a history of on track anger and stupidity time and time again.

Remember you rage quit, an I – race and lost a sponsor for quitting in the middle of that race, because of your anger when someone wrecked you. That mistake cost your team a sponsorship didn’t it. (ANGER)

You were in a race on a really hot day and involved in a wreck. After the race you went up to the other driver who was being attended to by a first aid attendant for heat stress and you threw a cold drink of water into that man’s face. Just so you know that stupid act could have killed that man by putting him into shock which can kill you. I know this as; I was a first aid attendant for 28 years. that was one of the stupidest things I have ever seen a grown man do under such circumstances. (ANGER& STUPIDITY)

You were driving the number 43 car in a race when your crew chief told you to stay out at the end of a stage, in order to get stage points. After the restart you dropped back like a rock and to show your displeasure to your crew chief you intentionally blew the motor or transmission in that car. Even the guys in the broadcast booth commented on what they heard and seen. (ANGER & STUPIDITY)

Over the last couple of years, I have seen Babba try and force his way into positions that were not open to him. He tries to force his way down onto the other driver’s door in order to push him down the track so he can get room to go between two cars or up against the wall, he tries to push drivers out of his way. I have seen him do this time and time again when it’s not safe to do so. On many of these occasions he is involved in wrecks all of his own making, but he insists on blaming the other guy. It’s always the other guy’s fault for his stupid mistakes.

Babba states that he never lifts for anyone. That goes to show you how stupid and dangerous this man is! A smart driver knows when to lift, when to hit the gas, and when to past safely.

It is my hope that the owners of 23XI, Denny Hanlin and Michael Jordon get to read this, and take a good long look at who they have driving their car. Is this the man that they want representing their team, and their sponsors?

The question to the sponsors of 23XI, Mc Donold’s, Door Dash, Roots and the many others that supports this team, should be, is this the man I want representing my products and my images as a sponsor.

Thanks for reading this, as it was a bit long.

Rick Coltman

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