By Jason Schultz / @NASCARJason – The intensity associated with the new Chase for the Sprint Cup format is incredible. With the points tighter than ever and success meaning so much more, the level of competition has reached an unparalleled level.
As a result, the on-track product is changing drastically. On the positive side, the racing in the final ten races is more fierce and competitive than ever before. This benefits the fans who are treated to a thrilling pursuit of the championship where success requires perfection.
The ability of some to rise to the occasion has resulted in controversy. With gameplay factoring into how the drivers compete throughout the playoffs, it has led to moves being made that push the limits of what is considered acceptable.
Matt Kenseth’s suspension following his actions in the Goody’s 500 brought the controversy to the forefront. While it’s undeniable that the Chase changes the way a driver competes, it has also changed the way NASCAR officiates.
With so much on the line, the sanctioning body feels their input is needed to keep the racing fair. However, the way they have gone about this in the past three races has many frustrated.
The questioning begins with how the sport justified Kenseth’s penalty. NASCAR issued the following statement from Executive Vice President Steve O’Donnell.
“Based upon our extensive review, we have concluded that the No. 20 car driver, who is no longer in the Chase, intentionally wrecked the No. 22 car driver, a Chase-eligible competitor who was leading the race at the time. The No. 20 car was nine laps down, and eliminated the No. 22 car’s opportunity to continue to compete in the race. Additionally, we factored aspects of safety into our decision, and also the fact that the new Chase elimination format puts a premium on each and every race. These actions have no place in NASCAR.”
Many inconsistencies arise with this explanation. The most notable involves the mention of an intentional wreck. While it’s undeniable his move had intent, the same argument can be made for the last three races.
The feud between Kenseth and Logano began at Kansas Speedway. When Logano got into the back of the leader with five laps remaining, it began a trend and sent a message.
Having won in Charlotte, Logano earned a guaranteed spot in the third round and was racing for glory in Kansas. After crashing during the previous race, Kenseth was in need of a win to advance further in the playoffs.
Being in position to capture a victory and advance while leading late after dominating the event, the 43-year old had to do everything possible to maintain the top spot. His actions can be justified because blocking was the key to maintaining his championship hopes, something NASCAR wanted to see in the Chase.
For Logano, not needing the win left him with two options. Battle the 2003 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion cleanly and gain respect or jeopardize his shot at the title by moving Kenseth to take the victory. By choosing to make the move, he put everything his team worked for throughout the season on the line.
Having the faster car, he more than likely would have eventually passed the No. 20. Being impatient and going for the win with five laps remaining and then handling himself in an arrogant way post-race was what angered Kenseth.
By saying, “I wasn’t going to put up with it,” highlights his attitude following the incident. This not only implied his guilt, but rubbed many drivers the wrong way as they believe he violated the unwritten driver code.
In NASCAR’s justification of suspending Kenseth, they reference that he intentionally impacted the day of a Chase driver. However, didn’t the same thing happen in Kansas? Logano purposely impacted Kenseth’s day by making contact. This led to his elimination following Talladega that essentially makes the rest of the season meaningless.
Brian France applauded Logano’s actions, saying that was “quintessential racing.” But what about in Martinsville, wasn’t that part of the compelling racing fans love? Where the line is drawn between the two events is hard to decipher, and is why a major inconsistency has surfaced.
In Talladega, a similar situation played out among different players.
In an attempt to salvage a shot at the championship, Kevin Harvick made contact with Trevor Bayne during the only attempt at a green-white-checkered finish. This triggered a multi-car accident that brought out the caution and ended the race.
While Harvick never admitted his role in the crash, the context of the situation tells the story. Being off the pace would have put him far behind in the final two circuits, likely leading to an early exit from the Chase.
His reaction? To end the race prematurely in order to preserve his position and shot at the title. If this isn’t considered “intentionally wrecking,” than I don’t what is.
By suspending Kenseth the following week for actions that mirror Harvick’s and impacted more drivers in the Chase, it seems to highlight NASCAR’s inconsistent calls.
Very little differs between what happened in Talladega and Martinsville. Both drivers maintained their innocence during interviews and never admitted any wrongdoing. While more evidence exists in Kenseth’s case, each violated what NASCAR has set as the precedent for intentionally wrecking.
Despite all of this, Kenseth ended up being the only one receiving the repercussions of the newly deemed illegal move. Did his actions cross a line? Possibly. However, he was reacting to the actions of another competitor who crossed the same line and was praised, not punished.
Why did the outcomes differ? Kyle Busch believes “it all depends on whose name’s above the door.” While this may seem like a stretch, it’s highly unlikely that NASCAR would implement the same consequences against a driver excelling under their format or one of the most popular in the sport.
At the end of the day, this precedent needs to change. If NASCAR wants to do away with “boys have at it” and go back to policing every on track accident, there needs to be guidelines and consequences laid out.
One of the most compelling aspects of racing is the excitement drawn from the drivers. Whether they are battling side-by-side for a victory or settling their differences on pit road following a race, it’s what fans love to see.
When unaltered, the new Chase format creates this possibility. Letting the drivers settle their own scores has produced the intensity and drama NASCAR wanted. Reacting in this manner takes away the chance for the excitement to unfold. The sanctioning body should have either penalized Logano, Harvick and Kenseth in the last three races or left it alone.
NASCAR wanted fans on their feet, being captivated by the intensity of the Chase. This happened on Sunday first with the Kenseth and Logano crash and later when Gordon won and advanced. The crowd reaction spoke volumes. By diluting it with the suspension, it rightfully subjected NASCAR to their inconsistencies that need to be addressed in order to set an even playing field moving forward.
Photo Credit: Todd Warshaw