Michael McDowell’s actions can be questioned, but his explanation for the fight with Daniel Suarez on Friday was what NASCAR fans have waited to hear.
“It’s emotions,” McDowell said.
“That’s just the way it is,” McDowell said.
It was that way in NASCAR all the way to the 1990s before the sport gentrified to placate sponsors. The trade-off for money was losing one’s soul.
The sport seeks to reclaim its spirit and return to those rougher ways. That doesn’t mean going all the way back to the untamed “Wild West” days. But it’s OK for a driver to show their anger. And many have in recent years.
The fight at Phoenix between Daniel Suarez and Michael McDowell — during qualifying of all things — illustrates the heightened tensions this season.
Joey Logano predicted two weeks ago at Atlanta Motor Speedway that the new rules package, which is intended to tighten the field, “is going to cause probably more wrecks and more tempers are going to fly and more drama is going to be there.”
Other than Daytona, there haven’t been the wrecks — last week’s Las Vegas race had cautions only for the two stage breaks — but the tempers are rising.
NASCAR’s season of drama could be beginning. And that could be a good thing for fans, who want to see more emotion on and off the track.
Suarez was upset with McDowell on Friday for getting in his way during the first round of qualifying. That slowed Suarez, who failed to advance. Suarez will start 28th. McDowell starts 27th.
After the round, Suarez went to McDowell’s car to express his displeasure. McDowell, upset because he felt Suarez tried to wreck him, shoved Suarez to trigger the scuffle.
They soon became entangled before Suarez threw McDowell to the ground. McDowell’s crew chief, Drew Blickensderfer, rushed in and shoved Suarez onto the hood of McDowell’s car. Suarez tried to kick McDowell while still on the car.
Suarez said afterward that McDowell’s actions hurt him for the race. Suarez’s team now has a later pick for pit stalls, which are selected in order of starting position. And Suarez will have to start deeper in the field in what is a short race, lasting 312 miles.
Qualifying poorly and having a bad pit stall pick hurt Logano at Atlanta. His stall was between the pit stalls of Alex Bowman and Martin Truex Jr. Logano lost at least 10 spots on each of the first two pit stops.
In a short race, that could be hard to overcome. Plus, drivers talk about the challenges of the “dirty air” of running behind a competitor. Starting deeper will provide a greater challenge for Suarez.
So it was understandable why he was upset when he headed to McDowell’s car on pit road.
This is what NASCAR has sought and tried to foster since the “Boys, have at it” years to now (NASCAR did not call either driver to the hauler Friday). Fans complain that drivers are too weary of upsetting sponsors by their actions. That mattered little to McDowell or Suarez.
This is the second time this season that McDowell has angered a fellow Ford driver.
Logano was mad at McDowell for pushing the Toyota of Kyle Busch on the last lap of the Daytona 500 instead of Logano. McDowell, who had not been enamored with how Ford drivers raced him in that event, said after that race that “my team doesn’t pay me to push Joey Logano to a win.”
McDowell isn’t the only driver who has been at the subject of driver frustrations.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has upset a fellow competitor in each of the first three races. Logano was angered by a move Stenhouse made during the Daytona 500 and said on his radio: “Ricky Stanhkouse. God. He sucks.”
Truex was furious with Stenhouse, who was a lap down, for not getting out of his way as Truex attempted to chase down leader (and eventual winner) Brad Keselowski at Atlanta. Truex finished second but left convinced he could have won had he been able to get around Stenhouse sooner. Stenhouse discounted Truex’s argument.
Last week, Stenhouse and Erik Jones raced each other as if they were at Martinsville instead of Las Vegas.
Friday, Truex could enjoy the show. He was a fan as he watched McDowell and Suarez rumble.
Had Truex ever seen a fight on pit road during qualifying?
“I did today,” he said.
“It was awesome.”