Friday 5: Anger building during NASCAR’s season of rage

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Call this NASCAR’s season of rage: Drivers sniping, fussing and even a few fighting.

The anger was evident last weekend at Watkins Glen International. A seven-time champion ridiculed a competitor in an interview on NBCSN. A young driver’s expletive-laced comments explained why he spun a former champion.

The confrontations and cross words are not surprising in a season that might best be described with an angry face emoji.

The Cup Series is going though a transition. A new rules package is meant to excite current fans, coax new fans and create tight racing that can lead to clashes on and off the track. While the new rules have enhanced racing at 1.5-mile tracks, drivers say that passing remains a challenge. Thus blocking, once a tactic found primarily at Daytona and Talladega, has become commonplace. So have the conflicts.

There’s also a battle between veteran drivers and the next generation. The last few years have seen many veterans leave, and several new drivers arrive. Seventeen of the 40 starters in the Daytona 500 three years ago are no longer full-time Cup drivers, a list that includes Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle. One driver who missed that race with an injury was Tony Stewart. He returned nine races into the year for what was his final Cup season.

Mix blocking with a generational gap in how to race, and one gets a mercurial situation. Add the pressure to make the playoffs and simply stand back because somebody is about to lose their cool.

So there was Jimmie Johnson, who holds the final playoff spot entering Sunday’s race at Michigan International Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN), confronting Ryan Blaney last weekend at Watkins Glen after Blaney’s contact spun Johnson. After their talk, Johnson told NBCSN that “I couldn’t hear what (Blaney) was saying, his lips were quivering so bad that he can’t even speak. I guess he was nervous or scared or both. I don’t know what the hell the problem is.”

Farther up pit road, Bubba Wallace said he wasn’t backing down. He turned Kyle Busch — Wallace’s former boss when Wallace ran in the Truck series — in retaliation for contact that sent Wallace into a tire barrier.

“I’m going to get my respect on the track, and I don’t care who it is,” Wallace said. “That’s for when guys fail to think about the young guys, I guess, or with me.

“I won’t put up with no shit. So I flat out wrecked his ass back.”

These disagreements have been going on throughout the season. It’s just that they’ve become more common lately.

Ryan Newman said he had a discussion with Blaney about blocking after a couple of incidents at Charlotte. Newman says blocking is not racing and he doesn’t do it.

“You don’t change the way that you enter a corner to choke somebody off knowing that it’s going to slow you down,” Newman said. “You, as a racer, are supposed to go out there and race as hard as you can to try to catch the guy in front of you, not let the guy behind you stay behind you.”

As for his discussion with Blaney, Newman said he told the fourth-year Cup driver: “The next time you do that, it’s not going to be good for you. That’s not the way I race. You want to block me, it’s not going to be good.’ I don’t mean it as a threat. I’m just telling him that’s the fact of it.”

Blocking was an issue Clint Bowyer had at the end of the Kansas race with Erik Jones in May. Jones, who is in his third full season, moved multiple lanes to block Bowyer’s charge and then drifted up to keep Bowyer behind.

“I had a huge run on both those guys but that kid, I guess he was willing to wreck himself to hold the position,” Bowyer said of Jones that night.

There have been other cases of veterans trying to lay down the law with a younger driver. After declaring last year he wasn’t going let off the gas when he was blocked because he had been wrecked from behind doing so, Brad Keselowski delivered “a message” at Daytona in July. He turned William Byron when Byron blocked him in practice.

“It would have been, I feel like, more professional to come talk to me about what was wrong instead of tearing up a race car and make my guys have to bring out a backup and have to work all the way through last night and show up early this morning and have to work even more,” Byron said the day after the incident. “I don’t think that’s the way to handle it. That’s kind of the unnecessary part for me that I don’t appreciate.”

It hasn’t just been veterans and young drivers having issues. Bowyer and Newman had contact after the All-Star Race that spun Bowyer. After exiting his car, Bowyer, ran to Newman’s and started punching Newman as he sat in his car.

Even young guys have been upset with one another. Alex Bowman was not happy with Joey Logano‘s driving at Charlotte, saying Logano “about crashed us in practice and then he drove into Turn 1 and tried to turn us (in the 600). I like Joey a lot. It is what it is. We’re all racing hard. I’m not super mad about it, I just thought it was dumb, that’s all.”

Asked about how drivers are racing each other, Bowman said: “Everybody has to race everybody hard with this package. There’s not a lot of room for give and take. I thought the situation was, there was a good chunk of the race left, it was pretty unnecessary. Probably wouldn’t have been as mad as I was about it if (Logano) didn’t about crash us in practice, which I thought was really unnecessary.

“It’s all good, and he’ll get his for sure.”

Bowman, who has a victory this season, doesn’t face the pressure to make the playoffs that Johnson does. Johnson, who has never failed to qualify for NASCAR’s postseason since it debuted in 2004, holds the final playoff spot by only a tiebreaker on Newman with four races left in the regular season. Earlier this month, Johnson’s team changed crew chiefs in the middle of the season for the first time in his career.

Johnson and Newman trail Bowyer by 12 points. Bowyer is trying to make the playoffs while he doesn’t have a contract for next season. Daniel Suarez, who has had run-ins with Michael McDowell (ISM Raceway) and Wallace (Pocono), is 23 points behind Johnson and Newman.

The tension is only going to increase in the Cup garage.

2. Life on the playoff bubble

Alex Bowman understands the pressure of trying to make the playoffs. A year ago, he held the final playoff spot with four races to go. He made the playoffs, but he admits to the anxiety he felt, something he doesn’t have to worry about with his win at Chicagoland Speedway qualifying him for a chance at the title this year.

“It’s definitely tough,” Bowman said of the pressure last year. “It’s not a lot of fun. It’s a lot of stress and a lot of pressure. It really wasn’t that bad last year until we got to Indy (for the regular-season finale), and we crashed pretty early, and we were kind of riding around just trying to finish. And I could see that Jamie McMurray was pretty close to the front, and, I’m like trying to look past 30 cars on restarts and see where everybody’s at. So, that was really stressful.”

3. Quest for tires that wear

NASCAR and drivers have made it clear that they seek a tire that wears more and that’s something Goodyear is looking to deliver.

When it comes to tires, no secret that we want more wear, especially on the short tracks, and that’s the goal,” Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, said earlier this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “We’re going to work closely with Goodyear to get that. We think that’s a huge component of what goes into a race. The more we can deliver on that, that’s where the drivers want to see us go, and we’re going to push hard to do that.”

Case in point was a recent tire test at Martinsville Speedway.

“I think the main deal for that tire test was finding a left rear (tire) that fell off,” said Ryan Blaney, who took part in the test. “We ran through a bunch of different sets and combinations and things like that. Some were better than others. I don’t know what we’re coming back there with.”

Paul Menard, who also participated in the test, likes the idea of a tire that wears more.

“I think that Goodyear kind of sees that and is making a push to maybe be more aggressive to give us a softer compound that wears out more,” he said.

4. Winning again

Chase Elliott‘s win last weekend at Watkins Glen International gave Chevrolet four wins in the last six races: Alex Bowman (Chicagoland Speedway), Justin Haley (Daytona), Kurt Busch (Kentucky) and Elliott.

Chevrolet drivers had won only four of the previous 51 races before this recent streak.

5. Racing is in their blood

While Sterling Marlin looks to return to racing Saturday night at Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville after brain surgery, another former Cup driver will be racing Saturday night for the first time at Bowman Gray Stadium.

Bobby Labonte will get his first taste of “The Madhouse” in his first career modified race.

“The modified races there are really competitive, and the teams and drivers are serious and talented,” Labonte said in a media release. ” I am sure they will make it tough on me, but I am looking forward to strapping on my helmet and giving them a run.”

Garrett Smithley calls wreck with leaders a career low point

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Garrett Smithley said he felt “probably the lowest of my career” Saturday after causing the leaders to wreck late in the Xfinity Series playoff race at Kansas Speedway while he was five laps down.

Smithley said he wasn’t aware the leaders were behind him when he exited Turn 4 and moved up toward the wall. Chase Briscoe, who was leading, and Christopher Bell, who was second, made contact as Briscoe tried to avoid Smithley.

Briscoe finished third. Bell 12th.

“I just didn’t get the memo that he was coming,” Smithley said of the leaders. “(Spotter) Freddie (Kraft) usually does a good job, he always does a good job. I’m sure it wasn’t his fault. Something didn’t get transmitted or what. I glanced up. David Starr was back there. I was just riding. We were on like 70-lap tires just riding not even pushing hard. I hated it.”

Asked about the line he ran, going from the bottom in the corners to high on exit, Smithley said:

“I was running my line. If I had known he was back there, I wouldn’t have even done that. I was just riding. I was on 70-lap tires, not even pushing it. Just stupid mistake. I hate that it happened. I hate it for everybody that got involved. I do not want to be that guy by any means. I’ve never been that guy. I hate that that happened.”

It’s the second time in about a month that Smithley has been hit by a faster car while running laps down in a race.

In the Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Kyle Busch ran into the back of Smithley’s car and criticized Smithley’s credentials.

Asked if he feared people would start associating him with those incidents, Smithley said:

“No. What happened at Vegas happened. People spoke and most people were on my side. It was a mistake. People forget how hard this stuff is. Things happen in a split-second decision. Like I said, I didn’t know he was up there. I glanced up and didn’t see him and ran my line and that was it.”

Briscoe demurred on being overly critical of Smithley, saying “I still haven’t seen a replay” when he talked to reporters.

“It is frustrating even without that lap car, just in general,” Briscoe said. “I totally understand lap cars are obviously off the pace and that makes it tough for them. At this place, the fast guys are running the top and there were a lot of guys that would run the top in front of you.

“We are literally racing for our lives trying to lock into a championship. I haven’t seen the replay so it is hard to say. I know I got tagged in the left rear by Bell but at the same time it felt like (Smithley) was going to put me in the fence regardless.”

Told that Smithley said he wasn’t aware Briscoe was behind, Briscoe said: “I feel like he should have general awareness of what is going on. I totally get where he is coming from. It is tough in those situations. I don’t know. I don’t want to comment on it because I have not been in his position, so I am sure it is tough but it is frustrating to say the least on my end. We go from 15 to go thinking we are going to win the race and lock into Homestead and then you are two points back. It is frustrating. I am sure he will reach out and I appreciate that, but it doesn’t much help the fact.”

Said Bell: “I haven’t seen (a replay) so it’s hard for me to say. Obviously I didn’t mean to wreck the 98. It sucks that we tore up two race cars.”

While Bell and Briscoe were judicious in their words, some Cup drivers expressed their feelings on Twitter:

Smithley took responsibility on Twitter:

 

 

Xfinity results, points after Round of 8 begins at Kansas

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Brandon Jones may have been eliminated from advancement in the Xfinity Series playoffs after the cutoff race at Dover two weeks ago, but on Saturday he lived up to his promise that he’d still win a race in the remainder of the playoffs as the Round of 8 kicked off.

It was Jones’ first win in 134 career Xfinity Series starts. It also was his 14th top-10 finish of 2019.

MORE: Brandon Jones rallies late to earn first career Xfinity win at Kansas

Tyler Reddick finished second, followed by Chase Briscoe, Michael Annett and Justin Allgaier.

Click here for the race results.

POINTS:

Even though he finished 12th after being involved in a late race wreck with Briscoe and Garrett Smithley, Christopher Bell still maintains his lead at the top of the heap of the Xfinity Series point standings.

Bell holds an 11-point lead over Cole Custer and is 12 points ahead of Tyler Reddick and 47 points ahead of Justin Allgaier.

Fifth through eighth are Chase Briscoe (-49 points), Michael Annett (-59 points), Noah Gragson (-64 points) and Austin Cindric (-77 points).

Click here for the updated point standings.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Cole Custer, Tyler Reddick have physical confrontation after Kansas race

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Xfinity Series championship contenders Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick got involved in a heated confrontation that quickly turned physical after Saturday’s race at Kansas Speedway.

Custer, who was angry about Reddick making contact with him, approached his rival after they parked in the pits. Custer put a hand on the shoulder of Reddick, who responded by grabbing Custer with both hands (watch the video above).

The drivers both fell to the ground as they were swarmed by members of both teams. Neither driver seemed to be hurt, though Reddick had a red mark above his right eye.

“I was just frustrated that he can’t keep his car on the bottom and then runs us up into the wall,” Custer told NBC Sports. “If he wants to wreck cars and put them in the wall, that’s fine, but when it affects me, I’m not going to be very happy with him.

“I don’t know. I just went over to talk to him and say that and put my hand on him, and he just went berserk. I thought we had a good car and a shot to win.”

As he approached Reddick, Custer addressed him with “You can be a dumb (expletive).”

“I understand Cole’s frustration 100 percent,” Reddick told NBC Sports. “We’re trying to lock ourselves into Homestead, and he came up to talk after the race. He put a hand on me, I put a hand on him back, and that’s just how it’s going to be if we’re going to have a conversation that way.

“I’m out of breath. Had a fight there with some people, and it was a little bit of fun. I think a lot of Cole and his driving ability.”

Reddick finished runner-up Saturday to Brandon Jones, who won but already had been eliminated from the playoffs and wasn’t eligible to advance to the championship round. Custer finished 10th.

With two races remaining in the Xfinity playoffs at Texas Motor Speedway and Phoenix Raceway, Reddick and Custer both are comfortably in position to reach the title race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Custer is 38 points ahead of the cut line, and Reddick is plus-37. Christopher Bell, who crashed with leader Chase Briscoe when he ran into the rear of the lapped car of Garrett Smithley, remained the championship leader at 49 points ahead of Briscoe, who is two points behind fourth-ranked Justin Allgaier

“It was just heat of the moment,” Reddick said of the scuffle. “We’re pissed off. I’m sure we’ll talk about it here soon, maybe today, tomorrow.

“I hate that it happened to him, but we’ll try and move forward. Both of us have a lot left to lose in this deal, and if we take each other out, neither one of us get to Homestead, and I feel we both deserve to be there.”

Reddick and Custer did talk later in the garage as their cars were going through inspection.

Custer also was involved in a notable altercation after a truck race three years ago at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, where he tackled John Hunter Nemechek in anger after they collided on the last lap while racing for the lead.

Nemechek made light of that situation while Custer did postrace interviews Saturday (see the :50 mark of Dustin Long’s Twitter video below).

Brandon Jones rallies to earn first career Xfinity win at Kansas

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After starting from the front row next to pole sitter Christopher Bell, Brandon Jones fell backwards only to roar back late to win his first career Xfinity Series race Saturday at Kansas Speedway.

With the win, the 22-year-old Jones, who was knocked out of the playoffs earlier, still had an impact on how the Round of 8 began.

Jones was in the right place at the right time, taking advantage of late-race misfortune to Chase Briscoe and Bell, who were involved in a wreck with Garrett Smithley with 16 laps to go in the 200-lap event.

Equally as important was the great restart Jones got with four laps to go.

“This is incredible,” Jones told NBCSN. “I knew this would happen, we were going to come here and have an amazing run at the end of the day. … I’m not going to lie, my foot was literally shaking on the accelerator on the last lap, I’m not even sure I was wide open when I was doing it.

“There was a lot of nerve flow and emotion going through my mind but I saw it coming and I got pretty pumped.”

MORE: Cole Custer, Tyler Reddick have physical confrontation after race

MORE: Xfinity results, points after Round of 8 begins at Kansas

Tyler Reddick finished second, followed by Briscoe, Michael Annett and Justin Allgaier.

While Bell led 70 laps and Briscoe 33, their significant efforts were quickly derailed with 16 laps to go.

Briscoe was in the lead, with Bell right behind, when Briscoe tried to pass Garrett Smithley, who was five laps down at the time. But instead of yielding the high line on the track to Briscoe and Bell, Smithley washed up the track and Briscoe could not avoid contact, nor could Bell avoid contract with Briscoe.

Briscoe finished third, while Bell finished 12th.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Christopher Bell (18th stage win of season)

STAGE 2 WINNER: Cole Custer (eighth stage win of season)

WHO ELSE HAD A GOOD RACE: Briscoe overcame the late contact with Smithley and Bell to finish third. Also having a strong outing was Michael Annett, who potentially might have had a chance at a win if the race had gone a few more laps.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Making just his sixth start of the season, Ryan Truex had his car blow up on him after just four laps. “It sucks, that was my last race in this car (this season) and probably the best car we’ve had since Phoenix at the start of the year,” Truex told NBC. “We had a top five car for sure. That really sucks that we don’t even have a chance to show what we’ve got. … To not even have a chance is really hard to swallow.” … Harrison Burton, who on Thursday was announced that he would race full-time for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2020, made contact with Austin Cindric on Lap 70. “To me, it just felt like I flat out got wrecked,” Burton said of Cindric to NBC Sports. “It’s unfortunate and frustrating. … I guess he didn’t want to race, he just wanted to wreck.” Burton finished 34th, while Cindric was 25th.

NOTABLE: Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick were involved in a pushing and shoving match for about 20 seconds after the race, but were separated.

WHAT’S NEXT: The Xfinity Series has next weekend off. It returns to action for the O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 at Texas Motor Speedway on Nov. 2 (8:30 p.m. ET start, on NBCSN).

Follow @JerryBonkowski