Friday 5: What is proper etiquette between NASCAR playoff, non-playoff drivers?

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As Daniel Suarez discussed his first top-10 finish in nearly four months, Jeff Gordon walked by and said, “Nice job today.” Suarez thanked Gordon before the four-time Cup champion headed toward Victory Lane to celebrate Kyle Larson’s win last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.

The topic then changed. Suarez was asked about his incident with playoff driver Martin Truex Jr. that sent Truex’s car into the wall.

Such is life for a non-playoff driver. A skirmish with a championship contender can overshadow everything.

While yellow spoilers and yellow windshield banners designate those eligible for the title, it’s as if non-playoff drivers carry a scarlet letter. There is an expectation that Cup playoff drivers be given more latitude by those not racing for a championship, but how far should that go?

Drivers who do not make the playoffs also have something at stake. It could be to keep their job, prove to sponsors they’re a good investment or earn contract bonuses, among other things.

When Suarez and Truex were racing together last weekend, it was for a spot inside the top 10. Suarez’s last top-10 finish came at Nashville in June.

“Let me tell you,” Suarez told NBC Sports, “I feel so bad for (Truex). I feel really, really sorry for him. He just can’t be doing that. I’m racing as well here.

“I have a lot of respect for the guys in the playoffs, but one thing is respect and (another) is taking advantage of the situation. He was not even close to be clear. I don’t know why he did that.

“We’re in the last (15 laps) of the race. I have (fresher) tires. He doesn’t have tires. I don’t know. I think he has to be a little more smart.”

Truex told NBC Sports after the incident: “I was definitely running tight trying to get all we could and maybe I squeezed (Suarez).”

Truex finished 25th. The former series champion enters Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) 22 points out of the final transfer spot to next month’s title race.

NBC Sports analyst Dale Jarrett said this week on NASCAR America Motormouths that situational awareness is key for playoff drivers throughout these events.

“I actually think the drivers that are in the playoffs still need to consider who they are racing at this point in time and what the consequences might be,” he said. “Do the guys they are racing need this spot a little bit more?

“I said this on a radio show the other day … Martin Truex Jr. and his race team shouldn’t have been back there battling for 10th anyway. They’re a better team than that, and he’s, obviously, a championship driver. He should have been further up. 

“I’m all for these guys racing hard. You try not to have that contact, but sometimes it’s going to happen because things happen on a racetrack.”

NBC Sports analyst Kyle Petty applauded Jarrett’s comments and said of playoff drivers: “You have to take some responsibility. You can’t complain about non-playoff cars all the time.”

Asked last weekend if there is a lack of respect between non-playoff drivers and playoff drivers, Kyle Busch expressed his frustration.

“There’s a complete lack of respect everywhere, all over the place, so it doesn’t matter if it’s a playoff driver or a non-playoff driver,” Busch said. “The way all this has gone on the last four or five years with the newer generation coming in has completely ruined it from what it used to be.

“It might be exciting for the fans, but all you get is more torn up stuff. Next year, these car owners are not going to enjoy paying the bills on that new car, I guarantee you.”

Chase Briscoe, who is not in the playoffs, bounced off the wall while racing title contender Denny Hamlin for seventh with 62 laps to go last weekend. The contact resulted in a tire rub for Briscoe. The tire didn’t last, leading to a yellow flag.

During that caution, Hamlin said on his team’s radio of Briscoe: “That’s what he gets for being a … idiot.”

A video clip of the incident and Hamlin’s radio comments were posted on the NASCAR on NBC Instagram account. Briscoe posted a comment that read: “If only I had 10,000 races worth of experience under my belt …”

Hamlin saw Briscoe’s comment and replied: “@chasebriscoe_14 not sure you’ll get there. There’s cars racing for a championship. In case you forgot about taking out the leader and costing him 1 championship already this season. Perhaps when you learn give and take you will start to finish better.”

Briscoe responded: “@dennyhamlin I get paid to race, just because you guys are racing in the playoffs doesn’t mean I’m just gonna wave you by. One of the best cars we’ve had all year and I was trying to take advantage of it. I understand you guys are racing for a championship which is awesome for you guys but I’m racing for a job and results let me keep that job.”

Hamlin countered: “@chasebriscoe_14 well if your car is better and you are better on that day, you will get the spot back eventually. Risk management is how you optimize your finish each week. Maybe putting yourself in others shoes for 1 min would help. You had 25 races to get a chance to race for the post season. Respect is a underrated trait in today’s world it appears.”

The interaction showed the viewpoint of a playoff driver and non-playoff driver. For as fascinating as that was, such a conversation could have taken place privately. So, why did Hamlin engage Briscoe on social media?

“A lot of it, to me, is the mentality that the younger guys have is they can’t pick up the phone and call you,” Hamlin said. “They just make immature statements on social media, so I thought I would just go down to that level for a minute.”

Last weekend marked William Byron’s first race out of title contention after he failed to advance to the Round of 8. While he said he wasn’t raced differently by any of the playoff drivers, he was aware of his new situation compared to them.

“I was thinking about that throughout the race and some of the cautions,” Byron said. “As a race car driver, you’ve got a certain mindset and a certain way that you think as you go throughout the race, and it’s very hard to just kind of change that on the fly. So, you don’t really alter your whole strategy.”

Byron said he doesn’t want to have an incident with a playoff driver.

“I think that’s kind of the biggest thing for me is kind of trying not to wreck one,” he said. “But I didn’t feel like anyone raced me different, or that I raced them differently. You see the yellow spoilers. You kind of know who you’re around and things like that. I think you’re just kind of aware of those guys and what they’re trying to do.”

2. Wild West of restarts

It’s not always what a driver does that determines how well they restart at Kansas Speedway, but what the driver behind them does.

“I think the biggest thing with the 550 (horsepower) races is getting linked up to your push if you’re the leader,” William Byron said. “So, you’ve got to do things, whether you drag the brake or you roll into the throttle slow.

“You’ve got to make sure that that guy is linked up to your bumper to push you because if not, there’s not enough horsepower for you to just drive away, unless you’re in first gear or you have different ratios or something. So, that’s watching the mirror. That’s listening to my spotter and him count down when that guy is getting to my bumper.”

The final two restarts in the May race at Kansas showed how much the driver in the second row of a restart can dictate matters.

On the next-to-last restart, Kyle Larson was the leader and was on the outside line. Brad Keselowski was behind him. Kyle Busch led the bottom lane and had Ryan Blaney behind.

When the green flag waved, Blaney ran to the back of Busch’s rear bumper and pushed him. Keselowski had a gap to Larson’s rear bumper, leaving Larson without a push.

Blaney pushed Busch into the lead and also got by Larson, who led 132 laps in that event. An accident happened on that lap, setting up the final restart.

Busch restarted on the bottom and had Blaney to his outside. Larson restarted behind Blaney.

After the race resumed, Larson’s car attached to the rear of Blaney’s rear bumper.

“I thought I got a pretty good restart and so did (Larson) behind me,” Blaney said.

But trouble arrived in Turn 1.

“The push at Kansas that Larson gave me, you gotta realize when to get off somebody and you’re to the left side,” Blaney said. “That shouldn’t have happened. …That’s just a product of somebody being a little too aggressive at that point and kind of being in the wrong position on the bumper.”

Larson’s shove turned Blaney sideways in Turn 1 and sent Larson into the wall. They both lost speed and instead of racing for the win, fell into the pack. Larson finished 19th after leading nearly half the race. Blaney placed 21st. Busch won the race.

“I learned from it,” Larson said. “So far, I haven’t made that mistake again.”

Byron understands such woes with Kansas restarts.

“A lot of times, you can’t always win the restart at Kansas,” he said. “You have to just minimize the loss. Especially if you’re on the front row.”

3. Points race

Denny Hamlin is third in the standings, one point above teammate Kyle Busch and nine points above the cutline, but that’s not how he sees it.

Hamlin views himself as being on the cutline.

“We have to assume, based on past results, that one of those guys at the bottom – whether it be Joey (Logano) or Martin (Truex Jr.) are going to go out and win these next two races,” Hamlin said this week. “If they do that, then that cutline moves right to me, and I’m actually plus one, not plus nine or eight or whatever it is. That’s the number that I’m racing to – is plus one to even right now.”

The first driver outside a transfer spot is reigning Cup champion Chase Elliott. He won the 2018 playoff race at Kansas, finished second in the 2019 playoff race and was sixth in last year’s playoff race.

Elliott’s focus, though, isn’t on points.

“I don’t think there’s ever really a safe place with points unless you have a win,” he said.

While Elliott has two victories this season, neither came on an oval. He won on the road courses at Circuit of the Americas and Road America.

Elliott doesn’t worry that his last oval win came in last year’s title race at Phoenix.

“The results are what they are,” he said. “Whatever the reason may be doesn’t matter. You either do or you don’t, and we haven’t checked that box yet this year. I don’t feel like it’s been a lack of performance. On certain ovals, I feel we like we’ve been really solid. I feel like we’re just as capable as a year ago or the year before that.”

Elliott has five consecutive top-10 finishes on 1.5-mile tracks heading into Sunday’s race at the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway. He finished second in the Coca-Cola 600 and in the Las Vegas playoff race.

4. Another memorable moment?

Although Joey Logano has won a championship, a Daytona 500 and two Bristol night races, Kansas Speedway has been the site of some significant moments in his career.

“Lot of good memories there,” Logano said.

He may need another such moment to advance to the championship race.

Logano enters Kansas 43 points out of the final transfer spot for the championship race. Realistically, he needs to win either at Kansas or next week at Martinsville to advance.

Three times he’s scored significant victories at Kansas.

The first came in 2009. His victory in the Kansas Xfinity race came a week after his tumbling crash in the Cup race at Dover.

In 2015, he won at Kansas when it was the middle race in the second round. Logano went on to sweep all three races in that playoff round, but his Kansas victory came at a price. He spun Kenseth as they raced for the lead. Kenseth paid Logano back at Martinsville, wrecking him as Logano led and hurting his title hopes.

Last year, Logano held off Harvick over the final 40 laps to win and advance to the title race.

“To me, it was like holding off the pack at a superspeedway,” Logano said of last year’s Kansas finish. “You’re up front. The guy behind you is building runs. He’s going to different lanes … and you’ve got to be able to move around. As your car changes, the preferred lane was moving. His car was a lot stronger than mine down the straightaways. We were just not as trimmed out a car.

“Just having all of that was mentally exhausting for 40 laps. You’re on it for a long time. Knowing that one mistake would cost you a win, and knowing what that win was going to mean on top of that, you’re willing to throw it all on the line for that. He (was) going to have to spin me out to get around me.

“That’s what playoff racing is. There’s so much on the line. It’s so important, especially in this round, to win. Drivers are willing to do about anything to win.”

5. Best on the 550 horsepower tracks in 2021

Kansas marks the final race with the 550-horsepower package this season. The final two races (Martinsville and Phoenix) feature the 750-horsepower package.

Here are the drivers who have won the races with the 550-horsepower package this season:

3 – Kyle Larson (Las Vegas I, Coke 600, Texas)

2 – Ryan Blaney (Atlanta I, Michigan)

2 – Kyle Busch (Kansas I, Pocono II)

1 – William Byron (Homestead)

1 – Alex Bowman (Pocono I)

1 – Kurt Busch (Atlanta II)

1 – Denny Hamlin (Las Vegas II)

Front Row Motorsports adds more Cup races to Zane Smith’s schedule

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Reigning Craftsman Truck Series champion Zane Smith, who seeks to qualify for the Daytona 500, will do six additional Cup races for Front Row Motorsports this season, the team announced Tuesday. Centene Corporation’s brands will sponsor Smith.

The 23-year-old Smith will drive the No. 36 car in his attempt to make the Daytona 500 for Front Row Motorsports. That car does not have a charter. Chris Lawson will be the crew chief. 

Smith’s remaining six Cup races will be in the No. 38 car for Front Row Motorsports, which has a charter. Todd Gilliland will drive the remaining 30 points races and All-Star Open in that car. Ryan Bergenty will be the crew chief for both drivers this year.

Smith’s races in the No. 38 car will be Phoenix (March 12), Talladega (April 23), Coca-Cola 600 (May 28), Sonoma (June 11), Texas (Sept. 24) and the Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8). 

He also will run the full Truck season. 

Centene’s Wellcare, which offers a range of Medicare Advantage and Medicare Prescription Drug Plans will be Smith’s sponsor for the Daytona 500, Phoenix, Talladega and Sonoma. Centene’s Ambetter, a provider of health insurance offerings on the Health Insurance Marketplace, will be Smith’s sponsor at Texas and the Charlotte Roval. 

Smith’s sponsor for the Coca-Cola 600 will be Boot Barn. 

The mix of tracks is something Smith said he is looking forward to this season.

“I wanted to run Phoenix just because the trucks only go to Phoenix once and it’s the biggest race of the year,” Smith told NBC Sports. “I wanted to get as much time and laps as I can at Phoenix even though it’s in a completely different car. I wanted to run road courses, as well, just because I felt road course racing suits me.”

Smith also will be back in the Truck Series. Ambetter Health will be the primary sponsor of Smith’s Truck at Homestead (Oct. 21). The partnership with Centene includes full season associate sponsorship of Smith’s Truck and full season associate sponsorship on the No. 38 Cup car. 

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Lucas Oil 150
Zane Smith holding the Truck series championship trophy last year at Phoenix. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Smith’s connection to Centene Corporation, a St. Louis-based company, goes back to last June’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis. Smith made his Cup debut that weekend, filling in for Chris Buescher, who was out with COVID-19. Smith finished 17th.

“It’s cool to see how into the sport they are,” Smith said of Centene Corporation. “It started out with an appearance I did for them (at World Wide Technology Raceway). I’ve gotten to know that group pretty well.”

Centene also is the healthcare partner of Speedway Motorsports and sponsors a Cup race at Atlanta and Xfinity race at New Hampshire. 

Smith’s opportunity to run select Cup races, including major events as the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600, is part of the fast trajectory he’s made.

In 2019, he made only 10 Xfinity starts with JR Motorsports and didn’t start racing full-time in NASCAR until the 2020 season. Since then, he’s won a Truck title, finished second two other times and scored seven Truck victories.

“I feel like I’ve lived about probably three lifetimes in these four years just with getting that part-time Xfinity schedule and running well and getting my name out there,” Smith said.

He was provided an extra Xfinity race at Phoenix in 2019 with JRM and that proved significant to his future.

“That happened to be probably one of my best runs,” he said of his fifth-place finish that day. “We ran top four, top five all day and (team owner) Maury Gallagher happened to be there. He watched that.”

He signed with Gallagher’s GMS Racing Truck truck.

“It was supposed to be a part-time Truck schedule and (then) I won at Michigan and it was like, ‘Oh man, we’re in the playoffs, we should probably be full-time racing.’ I won another one a couple of weeks later at Dover.”

His success led to second season with the team and he again finished second in the championship. That led to the drive to a title last year.

The championship trophy sits in his home office and serves as motivation every day.

“First thing you see is when you come through my front door is pretty much the trophy,” Smith said. “It drives me crazy now thinking I could have two more to go with it and how close I was. … Really just that much more hungrier to go capture more.”

IndyCar driver Conor Daly to attempt to qualify for Daytona 500

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Conor Daly, who competes full-time in the NTT IndyCar Series, will seek to make his first Daytona 500 this month with The Money Team Racing, the Cup program owned by boxing Hall of Famer Floyd Mayweather.

The team also announced Tuesday plans for Daly to race in up to six additional Cup races this year as his schedule allows. Daly’s No. 50 car at Daytona will be sponsored by BITNILE.com, a digital marketplace launching March 1. Among the Cup races Daly is scheduled to run: Circuit of the Americas (March 26) and the Indianapolis road course (Aug. 13, a day after the IndyCar race there).

“The Money Team Racing shocked the world by making the Daytona 500 last year, and I believe in this team and know we will prepare a great car for this year’s race,” Mayweather said in a statement. “Like a fighter who’s always ready to face the best, Conor has the courage to buckle into this beast without any practice and put that car into the field. Conor is like a hungry fighter and my kind of guy. I sure wouldn’t bet against him.”

Daly will be among at least six drivers vying for four spots in the Daytona 500 for cars without charters. Others seeking to make the Daytona 500 will be seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson (Legacy Motor Club), Travis Pastrana (23XI Racing), Zane Smith (Front Row Motorsports), Chandler Smith (Kaulig Racing) and Austin Hill (Beard Motorsports).

“I am thrilled to be given the opportunity to attempt to run in the Daytona 500,” Daly said in a statement. “It is the most prestigious race in NASCAR and to have the chance to compete in it is truly an honor. I am also excited to be running the entire IndyCar Series season and select NASCAR Cup events. I am looking forward to the challenge and can’t wait to get behind the wheel of whatever BITNILE.com race car, boat, dune buggy or vehicle they ask me to drive. Bring it on.”

Daly has made 97 IndyCar starts, dating back to 2013. He made his Cup debut at the Charlotte Roval last year, placing 34th for The Money Team Racing. He has one Xfinity start and two Craftsman Truck Series starts.

 

Will driver clashes carry beyond Coliseum race?

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LOS ANGELES — Tempers started the day before the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum when AJ Allmendinger, upset at an aggressive move Chase Briscoe made in practice, “sent (Briscoe) into the fence.”

The action gained notice in the garage. It was quite a change in attitude from last year’s inaugural Clash when drivers were more cautious because teams didn’t have as many spare parts for the new car at the time.

But seeing the aggression in practice made one wonder what the races would be like. Such actions carried over to Sunday night’s exhibition race, which featured 16 cautions and many reasons for drivers to be upset. 

Kyle Busch made it clear where he stood with Joey Logano running into his car and spinning him as Busch ran sixth with 65 laps to go.

“It’s really unfortunate to be raced by guys that are so two-faced,” Busch said of Logano to SiriusXM NASCAR Radio after the race. “We were in the TV booth earlier tonight together and when we were all done with that, just like ‘Hey man, good luck tonight.’ ‘OK, great, thanks, yea, whatever.’

“Then, lo and behold, there you go, he wrecks me. Don’t even talk to me if you’re going to be that kind of an (expletive deleted) on the racetrack.”

Logano said of the contact with Busch: “I just overdrove it. I screwed up. It was my mistake. It’s still kind of a mystery to me because I re-fired and I came off of (Turn) 2 with no grip and I went down into (Turn 3) and I still had no grip and I slid down into (Busch’s car). Thankfully, he was fast enough to get all the back up there. I felt pretty bad. I was glad he was able to get up there (finishing third).”

Austin Dillon, who finished second, got by Bubba Wallace by hitting him and sending Wallace into the wall in the final laps. Wallace showed his displeasure by driving down into Dillon’s car when the field came by under caution.

“I hate it for Bubba,” Dillon said. “He had a good car and a good run, but you can’t tell who’s either pushing him or getting pushed. I just know he sent me through the corner and I saved it three times through there … and then when I got down, I was going to give the game. Probably a little too hard.”

Said Wallace of the incident with Dillon: “(He) just never tried to make a corner. He just always ran into my left rear. It is what it is. I got run into the fence by him down the straightaway on that restart, so I gave him a shot and then we get dumped.”

Among the reasons for the beating and banging, Briscoe said, was just the level of competition.

“Everyone was so close time-wise, nobody was going to make a mistake because their car was so stuck,” he said. “The only way you could even pass them is hitting them and moving them out of the way. … It was definitely wild in that front to mid-pack area.”

Denny Hamlin, who spun after contact by Ross Chastain, aptly summed up the night by saying: “I could be mad at Ross, I could be mad at five other guys and about seven other could be mad at me. It’s hard to really point fingers. Certainly I’m not happy but what can you do? We’re all just jammed up there.”

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After going winless last year for the first time in eight seasons, Martin Truex Jr. was different this offseason. Asked how, he simply said: “Mad.

“Just determined. Just have a lot of fire in my belly to go out and change what we did last year.”

Sunday was a start. After a season where Truex was in position to win multiple races but didn’t, he won the Clash at the Coliseum, giving him his first Cup victory since Sept. 2021 at Richmond. 

The 42-year-old driver pondered if he wanted to continue racing last season. He had never examined the question before.

“I’m not really good at big decisions,” Truex told NBC Sports in the offseason. “I didn’t really have to do that last year. This sport … to do this job, it takes a lot of commitment, takes a lot of drive, it takes everything that you have to be as good as I want to be and to be a champion.

“I guess it was time for me to just ask myself, ‘Do I want to keep doing this? Am I committed? Am I doing the right things? Can I get this done still? I guess I really didn’t have to do that. I just felt like it was kind of time and it was the way I wanted to do it.”

As he examined things, Truex found no reason to leave the sport.

“I came up with basically I’m too good, I’ve got to keep going,” he said. “That’s how I felt about it honestly. I feel like I can win every race and win a championship again.”

Things went his way Sunday. He took the lead from Ryan Preece with 25 laps to go. Truex led the rest of the way. 

“Hopefully we can do a lot more of that,” Truex said, the gold medal given to the event’s race winner draped around his neck Sunday night. 

“We’ve got a lot going on good in our camp, at Toyota. I’ve got a great team, and I knew they were great last year, and we’ll just see how far we can go, but I feel really good about things. Fired up and excited, and it’s just a good feeling to be able to win a race, and even though it’s not points or anything, it’s just good momentum.”

Asked if this was a statement victory, Truex demurred.

“I just think for us it reminds us that we’re doing the right stuff and we can still go out and win any given weekend,” he said. “We felt that way last year, but it never happened.

“You always get those questions, right, like are we fooling ourselves or whatever, but it’s just always nice when you finish the deal.

“And racing is funny. We didn’t really change anything, the way we do stuff. We just tried to focus and buckle down and say, okay, these are things we’ve got to look at and work on, and that’s what we did, and we had a little fortune tonight.”

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While the tire marks, dented fenders and bruised bumpers showed how much beating and banging took place in Sunday night’s Clash at the Coliseum, it wasn’t until after the race one could understand how much drivers were jostled.

Kyle Larson, who finished fifth, said the restarts were where he felt the impacts the most. 

I only had like one moment last year that I remember where it was like, ‘Wow, like that was a hard hit,’” Larson said. “I think we stacked up on a restart at like Sonoma or something, and (Sunday’s Clash) was like every restart you would check up with the guy in front of you and just get clobbered from behind and your head whipping around and slamming off the back of the seat.

“I don’t have a headache, but I could see how if others do. It’s no surprise because it was very violent for the majority of the race. We had so many restarts, and like I said, every restart you’re getting just clobbered and then you’re clobbering the guy in front of you. You feel it a lot.”

After the race, Bubba Wallace said: “Back still hurts. Head still hurts.”

Kyle Busch apologizes for violating Mexican firearm law

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Kyle Busch issued a statement Monday apologizing “for my mistake” of carrying a firearm without a license in Mexico.

The incident happened Jan. 27 at a terminal for private flights at Airport Cancun International as Busch returned with his wife from vacation to the U.S.

The Public Ministry of the Attorney General of the Republic in Quintana Roo obtained a conviction of three years and six months in prison and a fine of 20,748 pesos ($1,082 U.S. dollars) against Busch for the charge. Busch had a .380-caliber gun in his bag, along with six hollow point cartridges, according to Mexican authorities.

Busch’s case was presented in court Jan. 29.

Busch issued a statement Monday on social media. He stated he has “a valid concealed carry permit from my local authority and adhere to all handgun laws, but I made a mistake by forgetting it was in my bag.

“Discovery of the handgun led to my detainment while the situation was resolved. I was not aware of Mexican law and had no intention of bringing a handgun into Mexico.

“When it was discovered, I fully cooperated with the authorities, accepted the penalties, and returned to North Carolina.

“I apologize for my mistake and appreciate the respect shown by all parties as we resolved the matter. My family and I consider this issue closed.”

A NASCAR spokesperson told NBC Sports on Monday that Busch does not face any NASCAR penalty for last month’s incident.