Friday 5: Aggressive driving making more of an impact in Cup

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While some might suggest Ross Chastain has hurt his chances of winning the Cup championship because of his aggressive driving this season, maybe the question should be is if that aggressive driving will help Chastain (or any other driver) win the title?

Signs point to a more volatile stretch of racing this season that could make the bumper-car action at Indianapolis seem tame. Consider:

  • Four races remain in the Cup regular season. The only way drivers outside a playoff spot can make it is to win. That can lead to aggression. 
  • The playoffs appear to be as wide open as ever. Making bold moves could be what helps competitors avoid elimination in the early rounds.
  • The durability of the Next Gen car and the challenge of passing make restarts more critical and drivers more open to aggressive behavior. 
  • NASCAR’s mixed message on retaliation leaves the door open for interpretation by each driver. 

Last weekend’s event on the Indianapolis road course proved chaotic because of the track’s setup with a long straightaway preceding a narrow, sharp right-hand turn. 

Ryan Blaney contended for second on the final restart when he was in the middle of a three-wide pack of cars entering Turn 1. Blaney was spun in the entry to Turn 2 on the road course and finished 26th.

“It’s a case of just getting wrecked,” he said after the event. “That’s all people do at the end of these things, just dive in there and wreck you. I don’t know who shoved who and I don’t care, but tires didn’t matter at the end. We restarted top three both times and tires don’t really matter.  

“It’s just a matter of getting through on the restart, but, apparently, that’s a hard thing to ask. People just run over each other … I didn’t have a shot to get to (Tyler Reddick) to try to put the bumper to him or anything like that, just get wiped out. I don’t know. I’m pissed off about it, and I have every damn right to be.”

Blaney’s frustration is understandable. He would have clinched a playoff spot with a victory. Instead, he could still miss the playoffs even though he is second in points going into Sunday’s race at Michigan International Speedway (3 p.m. ET on USA Network).

Drivers can be more aggressive because of the new car. With the previous version, it wasn’t uncommon for contact to lead to a cut tire. With the Next Gen car, the vehicle is more durable. Cut tires are not as common.

Blaney’s teammate, Austin Cindric, benefitted from that final restart to finish second and noted how the new car allows drivers to charge more. 

“All I can say is wow,” Cindric said after his best finish since winning this year’s Daytona 500. “There’s no other form of racing that you can do that and … get away with it (without significant damage).

“Pretty wild, pretty crazy. … These (cars) are tanks. Absolutely, they are tanks. Yeah, you’ll get the toe bent and it affects the bumps and makes it hard to drive, but as long as I don’t get a flat tire, I’m still digging.”

That’s the mindset throughout the field. 

“Right, wrong or indifferent, you either get or you get got right now in the NASCAR Cup Series,” Corey LaJoie said on Wednesday’s MotorMouths on Peacock. 

Joey Logano said this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that drivers essentially have no choice but to be aggressive. 

“These cars all run almost the same speed,” he said. “We all have the same parts and pieces now. There’s only limited things we’re changing to make them faster than the other car, so that just makes it harder to pass. 

“You send it down into the corner and you get out of control, you just go too fast. That’s what you saw in Turn 1 (at Indy) not just on restarts but other times, too. That was the big passing zone. If I don’t pass them here, then I’m stuck behind them for Lord knows how long, so I’ve got to go. That’s what those mistakes are. 

“Is it disrespect? I don’t know if it’s disrespect as much as it is just guys driving over their head to make a pass because that’s the only way to do it.”

Another factor is how NASCAR responds to such driving — and retaliation. 

After Noah Gragson tired of Sage Karam’s contact, he turned Karam on a straightaway during the Xfinity race at Road America. Eleven other cars were collected in the incident. It wasn’t until four days later that NASCAR penalized Gragson for the action. NASCAR fined Gragson $35,000 and docked him 30 points. 

Last Friday in the Camping World Truck Series race, Carson Hocevar retaliated against Colby Howard for contact. Hocevar turned Howard on the straightaway at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park, sending Howard into the wall. No other vehicles were collected. NASCAR did not penalize Hocevar.

While NASCAR has previously stated it judges each incident on its own, nothing happens in a vacuum in the sport. Drivers watch how NASCAR reacts. 

Unless something is done in the near future, aggressive driving may become worse.

“Somewhere there’s been that disconnect to young drivers, to really, really young drivers … I’m talking about 7-8-9-10-11-year olds,” Kyle Petty said on MotorMouths on Wednesday. “They think that’s how you race. They think you go and run over each other. 

“Then, it’s just magnified when you get to (the Cup) level because  they’ve already got that set in their head that that’s OK.”

2. Sign of the times?

Kyle Busch’s contract status isn’t the first time a former Cup champion has faced challenges recently with a contract extension.

Brad Keselowski signed a one-year contract extension with Team Penske in August 2020 that carried him through the 2021 season. Part of the challenge then was that it came during the pandemic, which impacted companies and marketing budgets. 

By the time the contract extension was announced, Keselowski had scored three or more Cup wins for a fifth consecutive season. With his contact up after last season, Keselowski agreed to a deal to become driver and be a part owner for what is now Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing.

Joe Gibbs Racing had a potential sponsor in place for Busch’s team this year before that deal went away. With about six months left until the 2023 season begins, JGR has not announced a new sponsor for the No. 18 car or a contract extension for Busch. 

Last month, David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, told NBC Sports that JGR and Toyota were working on contingency plans while still seeking to sign Busch. The two-time Cup champion said last weekend at Indianapolis that he was willing to make concessions “to race for under my market value” to remain at JGR.

On the other side, Hendrick Motorsports announced in February that it had signed Chase Elliott to a five-year contract extension that will take him through the 2027 season.

Still, Keselowski noted the challenges for drivers at this point.

“The sport is going through a dramatic reset,” he said. “The tides have changed pretty dramatically over the last decade, maybe even two decades. We went from a point in time where the drivers made an incredible amount of money. … and the team owners had no value at all.

“I look at Robert Yates, who had been a staple of the sport for 30-some years and had to sell his race team for effectively liquidated value when he was ready to retire. Think of what an absolute travesty that was, an investment he put in it. At the same time, there were drivers making as much and arguably more a year than what he was able to liquidate all his assets for, and that seems really wrong.

“We’re seeing a flip of that now, where now the team owner assets are worth considerably more money and the driver pay is declining very rapidly. It’s a flip for sure. You can argue which one is better for the sport, but definitely a dynamic shift for sure.”

Keselowski cites the charter system and media rights deal, which go through the 2024 season, as making teams more valuable.

“I feel like I got into the team ownership piece at exactly the right time and kind of saw this coming,” he said.

3. Ford and Kyle Busch?

When Kyle Busch made his NASCAR debut, it was in a Ford for Roush Fenway Racing in the Truck Series in 2001. 

One of the interesting elements about Busch’s future is what could happen to Kyle Busch Motorsports if Busch does not sign a contract extension with Joe Gibbs Racing and moves to a manufacturer other than Toyota.

Mark Rushbrook, global director, Ford Performance Motorsports, was asked this week about how might KBM be incorporated if a Ford team was interested in signing Busch.

“Any time we have an opportunity to improve our program, whether it is with drivers at a certain level in NASCAR or teams at all the levels in NASCAR, then that’s certainly something that is our responsibility to consider and make decisions on how it makes our program better or doesn’t,” he said. “So, certainly we would consider all options.”

Asked if he would personally want Busch in a Ford, Rushbrook said: “That’s not for me to answer, not from a personal perspective.”

Stewart-Haas Racing has not announced who will drive the No. 10 Ford next season. Aric Almirola announced before the season that this would be his final full-time Cup effort. That might change. 

Almirola said last month that he had been asked by “decision makers” about next season, leading to the possibility of a part-time or full-time return with Smithfield back as sponsor. Co-owner Tony Stewart declined comment to NBC Sports last weekend at Indianapolis on what the team’s plans are for next year.

If Almirola returns in a full-time role and SHR keeps its lineup intact, that would leave Team Penske and RFK Racing as the main Ford teams for Busch to consider.

Asked about Busch last week, team owner Roger Penske said: “We’ve really got four cars that we’re involved in today. We support the Wood Brothers and obviously Harrison (Burton). We’re full of drivers, and we’re happy with the guys we have there. They’re young and ready to go, and I think our sponsors are fully aligned with us.

“It’s interesting that Kyle hasn’t gotten a spot yet. Look … he’s one of the best out there. I think his expectations, along with what the sponsors and the team want to step up with, sometimes that doesn’t align. So at the moment I think we’ll wait and see.”

As for RFK Racing, Keselowski said this week: “We’re in a really good spot with Chris Buescher. I think he’s an excellent driver. I see him being a long-term driver with us here at RFK. ”

Keselowski suggested that with only two charters, there’s no room for Busch at RFK.

4. 4 is not enough

As the Cup series prepares for its 23rd race of the season, Ford has four victories this year, last among the manufacturers. Chevrolet has 13 wins. Toyota has five.

“Four wins is not enough,” Mark Rushbrook, global director, Ford Performance Motorsports, said this week. “It’s not acceptable. We need to get more wins. We need to have drivers further up the standings and hopefully at least four, if not more drivers, into the playoffs.  

“It’s certainly going to be hard with where we are with only four regular season races left, so it’s been a struggle with the new car, the new package with getting our head around it and how to set it up properly going to the track and optimizing it.  

“We’ve seen a lot of success with speed at different tracks where we have understood it, but we still didn’t bring the win home. So, there’s a lot of work to do, but that’s racing. We always need to make all elements of the car better, the engine, the aerodynamics, the chassis, the setup, the tire model, our simulator model, and that’s what we’re working on. We have a lot of meetings and advancements with our teams to try and do better every week.”

As for what he feels has been the key area in Ford’s struggles this season, Rushbrook said: “We’ve had different strengths across different cars at the different tracks. I think that’s part of the struggle is this car is so sensitive that even when one team is taking four cars or two cars to the track with very small differences, you’ll see one near the top of the board and two or three or four down at the other end of the board.  

“So, that’s part of it and just understanding how sensitive it is and making sure we can really find the optimum spot for these cars to run.”

5. Building momentum

With Chase Elliott’s streak of five consecutive top-10 finishes ending last weekend at Indianapolis, Bubba Wallace holds the longest active streak of top 10s with three in a row.

Wallace has finished third at New Hampshire, eighth at Pocono and fifth at Indianapolis. It is his longest top-10 streak in his Cup career and the longest for 23XI Racing.

For a team that has been plagued by pit road mistakes, strategy miscalls and accidents to have even a small three-race top-10 streak is “massive,” Wallace said.

“We needed to all step up,” he said. “We all needed to look ourselves in the mirror and do better. We’ve been doing that, so I’m proud of everybody.”

Denny Hamlin, co-owner of 23XI Racing, said the team is working on a contract extension with Wallace.

“We’ve got something on the table and, obviously, want him longterm with us,” Hamlin said.