Friday 5: Physical confrontations escalating in NASCAR

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s punch of Kyle Busch last weekend at the All-Star Race marked at least the ninth time since May 2023 that there has been a physical confrontation between NASCAR competitors, raising the question of if series officials are losing control.

That total equates to a physical confrontation taking place in 8.7% of all NASCAR Cup, Xfinity and Truck races in the last year.

There have been four such altercations this season. With 38 total races run across NASCAR’s top three series this year, that means that 10.5% of those events have had an instance where a competitor struck or shoved a driver.

While NASCAR’s history is tied to fighting — the brawl at the end of the 1979 Daytona 500 is glamorized and viewed as an essential part of that watershed race — series officials seem to recognize the dilemma they face.

NASCAR fined Stenhouse $75,000 — the largest the sanctioning body has issued for fighting. Series officials suspended one of Stenhouse’s team members four races and another for eight races. NASCAR also indefinitely suspended Stenhouse’s father for his involvement in the melee. Busch was not penalized.

NASCAR has sought to balance drivers showing emotion with making sure matters don’t get out of hand. The sport that once told drivers, “Boys have at it,” had shown a leniency toward a punch being thrown.

NASCAR did not penalize Ross Chastain when he punched Noah Gragson on pit road at Kansas in May 2023. Gragson approached Chastain after the race and grabbed him on pit road. Chastain told Gragson to stop before punching him. NASCAR security separated them.

Elton Sawyer, NASCAR senior vice president, explained on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio at the time why neither driver was penalized: “It’s an emotional sport and from time to time you are going to have disagreements and you’re going to see that.”

But when Matt Crafton punched Nick Sanchez after last fall’s Talladega Truck race, Crafton was fined $25,000 and Sanchez $5,000. Sanchez was fined for his threatening language toward Crafton after getting hit. Sanchez's father, who was involved in the skirmish, was suspended for the rest of the season.

Crafton was upset with Sanchez for an incident that eliminated him. Crafton approached Sanchez after the race in the garage area.

Sawyer told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio after that incident why Crafton was penalized: “Matt had had some time to think about the situation. It wasn’t like both drivers got out on pit road, heat of the battle, they go down and have a discussion with each other. This one spilled over into the garage sometime after the event, so felt like (it) could have been handled different, and that’s why Matt’s fine was at $25,000.”

That same thinking was noted by Sawyer this week in that Stenhouse, who was eliminated on the second lap, had the rest of the night to consider his actions. Since North Wilkesboro Speedway does not have a tunnel, competitors are stuck in the infield until the event ends, preventing Stenhouse from leaving.

“I will say when you wait, you know, 198 laps and you make those decisions that were made, we’re going to react to that,” Sawyer said this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “There could have been different decisions made. ... We want the two drivers to be able to have their time to express their differences, but again, once it escalates to where there’s been a physical altercation there, again, we’re going to react.”

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In each of these confrontations, no one has been seriously injured, but what happens if a driver is injured in a melee? Is it nearing a time when NASCAR needs to prevent drivers from confronting each other on pit road?

“I learned that when I was 12 years old,” Chastain said to NBC Sports this week. “You stay in your pit at Charlotte County Speedway (in Florida). They told me that like week one. I didn’t have an altercation. As I was learning and as I was a kid, I was seeing other stuff.

“There’s something to be said for the chin strap and the helmet and when you tighten that, it immediately changes your mindset. When you take it off, it, like, takes some time to come back down from that.”

Chastain said he’s unsure if NASCAR needs to bar drivers from confrontations on pit road after a race.

“They’re walking through this with us,” he said. “They’re learning as we all go as well. Each of these situations is different. I think they have to be looked at differently [and] judged differently.”

Here are the physical confrontations since May 2023, beginning with the most recent:

May 2024 All-Star Race: Stenhouse punches Busch after the race for wrecking him during the event. Stenhouse is fined $75,000. A crew member of Stenhouse's team is suspended four races and another for eight races for their actions in the incident. Stenhouse's father is suspended indefinitely.

May 2024 Darlington: Chris Buescher shoves Tyler Reddick on pit road after Reddick’s slide job fails and costs both a chance at the win. Buescher expresses his frustration after the race without any more contact with Reddick before walking away. No penalties.

March 2024 Bristol: Truck Series driver Stewart Friesen briefly grabs Nick Sanchez before the two were separated. Friesen was upset about contact that turned him in the race. No penalties.

February 2024 Atlanta: Jason Miller, crew chief for JJ Yeley’s Xfinity team charges Kyle Weatherman on pit road after Yeley was turned by Weatherman during the race. NASCAR suspended Miller two races.

September 2023 Talladega: Matt Crafton bloodies Sanchez’s face with a punch in the garage after the Truck race. Contact between the two wrecked Crafton. Crafton was fined $25,000; Sanchez $5,000. Sanchez's father was involved in the incident and suspended for the rest of the season.

July 2023 Pocono: Ryan Preece reaches into Corey LaJoie’s car and hits him on pit road after the race. Preece was upset about contact with LaJoie turning him. No penalties.

June 2023 Portland: Jeb Burton and Chandler Smith engage in an altercation on pit road after the Xfinity race, Burton was upset about contact with Smith that turned him. No penalties.

May 2023 Charlotte: Aric Almirola shoves Bubba Wallace on pit road during a rain delay. Almirola later tells Fox Sports that he went to ask Wallace why he flipped him off during the race. Almirola said that Wallace “started mouthing off and cussing at me. I told him I wasn’t going to have that.” No penalties.

May 2023 Kansas: Ross Chastain punches Noah Gragson on pit road after the race. Gragson approached Chastain and grabbed Chastain, who told Gragson to stop before hitting him. Gragson was upset with Chastain for an incident on track. No penalties.

There have been a couple of other instances of heated arguments between drivers this season but neither escalated to significant contact. There were no penalties for those incidents.

2. Kyle Larson’s biggest challenge this weekend

The biggest challenge in Kyle Larson’s attempt to compete in both the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday might not be the weather.

It could be convincing 6-year-old daughter Audrey he can win the Indianapolis 500 (coverage begins at 11 a.m. ET on NBC and Peacock).

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A video crew has been following Larson for months for a documentary on his bid to run both races. Wednesday night, the crew interviewed Larson’s son Owen and Audrey. Among the questions Larson said they were asked was ‘Who do you want to win the Indianapolis 500?’

“She didn’t say me,” Larson said Thursday of Audrey's response. “She said I would finish second.”

The video crew asked Audrey who would win.

“Alexander Rossi,” she said.

Rossi, the 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner, is one of Larson’s teammates at Arrow McLaren. Rossi will start fourth on the inside of the second row. Larson starts fifth, next to Rossi.

“She must be a Rossi fan,” Larson said of his daughter. “I don’t know how she got it, but she had one of his old Andretti kind of jersey things for a couple of years now. So maybe that’s why she’s a big fan of his.”

So what about her pick for Sunday night’s Coca-Cola 600?

“Hopefully, she picked me to win that one at least,” Larson said.

Throughout this endeavor, Larson has said his priority has been the Coca-Cola 600. While he’s had a lot to learn about an IndyCar, it hasn’t diminished what time Larson says he spends to prepare for a Cup race.

“This week hasn’t been much different than a typical week for me,” Larson said. “I’m usually most (of the time) gone from my team meetings anyways, so I call in for them and called into our team meeting (Thursday) morning and went over all the 600 stuff.

“I’m sure there’s drivers that do way more prep than I do. I really don’t do a whole lot. I just have always been a guy that doesn’t rely on data and previous stuff. I like to just go out there — have some sort of idea but then get out there and feel it. That’s kind of how I treat every weekend.

“So this weekend is no different, but it helps when your car is good. Our cars are typically good and our team is a well-oiled machined. I feel like we’re very prepared. I have confidence in everybody.”

Of course, Larson came from the back of the starting lineup to finish fourth in last weekend’s All-Star Race and did that without being in the car until the race started.

“I would say our process is fine,” Larson said.

3. Will NASCAR race at Nashville Fairgrounds again?

Well before Chase Elliott won his first Cup race in 2018, Ty Gibbs made his ARCA debut in 2019 and Joey Logano won either of his two Cup titles, Speedway Motorsports sought to operate Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway and return NASCAR to the historic track.

Nearly seven years later, Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith continues his quest but admits that it is “certainly taking a lot longer than I would like it to.”

A fair board oversees the track, which hosted NASCAR Cup races from 1958-84. It took years of meetings, various plans for the track and a study on the noise level before the fair board commissioners approved the plan and then a mayoral election changed administrations and forced Speedway Motorsports to start conversations with a new leadership for the city.

“Certainly I’ve thought about just calling it quits and walking away,” Smith told NBC Sports. “But right when I feel like we’re going to do that, we get some good news. … I think that if we’re able to get this done, it will be something that will be worth the struggle and we’ll all be happy about it. When we finally get the things done that need to be done, we will have a lot to celebrate.”

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So, what’s the good news that is keeping Smith still interested in operating the speedway?

“Just particular conversations, meetings that we have, things that we are told,” Smith said. “I will tell you that there’s many times we’ve been told one thing and it hasn’t happened. A different thing happens.

Smith declined to say who or what offices were not doing as had said in previous meetings.

“We’re pushing and we’re hopeful," Smith said of getting a deal done to operate Fairgrounds Speedway and bring NASCAR back to that .596-mile track. "I think that it has a lot of potential and could be great for not just racing but great for Nashville because the facility itself needs a lot of attention. We don’t own it, but we think that we can bring some operational expertise and a financial reason for the community to invest in it as opposed to it just sort of band-aiding it for years and years to come.”

4. AirSpeed’s debut

Part race shop, part Silicon Valley, 23XI Racing’s new facility — AirSpeed — has a look unlike most race shops.

That was the plan, a vision co-owner Denny Hamlin had, and was orchestrated by former Cup crew chief Mike Wheeler, who is the team’s senior director of operations and planning.

Thursday, the team opened its shop to the public, showing off the two-story facility that is the home to the teams of Bubba Wallace and Tyler Reddick.

Airspeed shop floor.jpeg
Airspeed shop floor.jpeg

From wide spaces and workstations clustered together, the layout is meant to bond team members. AirSpeed also has more, including a spacious lunchroom that can be converted into space to hold meetings with the team’s partners and more.

“It’s both a selling point and (for) retaining people,” said Wheeler, who was Hamlin’s crew chief when he won the first of his three Daytona 500s in 2016. “Anybody can try to get $10 more from somebody else to go work someplace but when you give your employees something like this to live in … it’s hard to underprice that. That’s where Denny and Michael were all in in spending the money here to be different than everyone else.”

AirSpeed lunch room.jpeg
AirSpeed lunch room.jpeg

Eight months after breaking ground, the organization began to move into the facility on Dec. 1. Work continues. The team hopes to complete construction on a pit facility behind the shop to allow their pit crews to work instead of sharing time at Joe Gibbs Racing with JGR’s pit crews.

The building is 114,000-square feet. It’s large enough for the two-car team and would have plenty of room if the organization expands to three teams.

The No. 23 — co-owner Michael Jordan’s playing number throughout most of his NBA career — plays a key part in elements of the shop. The windows are angled at 23 degrees. The viewing screen in the team’s command center is 23 feet wide.

Airspeed lobby.jpeg
Airspeed lobby.jpeg

5. Numbers to know

2 — Drivers who have won the 600 and the Cup title in the same year since 2000: Kyle Larson in 2021 and Ryan Blaney in 2023.

7 — Consecutive top 10s by Kyle Busch in the 600.

8 — Active drivers who have won the 600: Jimmie Johnson (four wins), Martin Truex Jr. (two), Ryan Blaney (one), Kyle Busch (one), Austin Dillon (one), Denny Hamlin (one), Brad Keselowski (one) and Kyle Larson (one).

9.85 — Average finish this season by Chase Elliott, best in the series.

10 — Pit stops by Ryan Blaney in last year’s 600 on the way to winning that race.

17 — Consecutive races Denny Hamlin has led at least a lap. The last driver to lead at least a lap in 18 consecutive races was Jeff Gordon in 1995. Gordon led 19 races in a row that season.