NASCAR gives Johnny Sauter a toothless one-race suspension for intentional crash

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<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nascar/sprint/drivers/378/" data-ylk="slk:Johnny Sauter">Johnny Sauter</a> will miss Saturday night's race at Gateway. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)
Johnny Sauter will miss Saturday night's race at Gateway. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

NASCAR issued a meaningless one-race suspension for Truck Series driver Johnny Sauter on Tuesday, two days after Sauter intentionally crashed Austin Hill under yellow.

The suspension is toothless because it includes a waiver that allows Sauter to retain his playoff eligibility. Sauter qualified for the Truck Series playoffs in May with his win at Dover and, per NASCAR’s rules, drivers must attempt to qualify for every race to retain their playoff eligibility.

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A suspension obviously puts Sauter in violation of that rule. But NASCAR’s waiver means that he gets to violate a playoff provision — because of a penalty from NASCAR for his egregious conduct — and still retain his playoff eligibility.

What happened at Iowa

Sauter bumped Austin Hill while the two drivers entered turns 1 and 2. Hill took exception to the bump from Sauter and drove into the back of Sauter’s bumper soon after. That bump sent Sauter spinning around and into the wall.

Johnny Sauter bumped Austin Hill, then Hill turned Sauter. (Fox Sports 1)
Johnny Sauter bumped Austin Hill, then Hill turned Sauter. (Fox Sports 1)

Sauter then angrily drove his truck away from the crash scene and toward hill and drove Hill’s truck into the wall in anger. NASCAR parked Sauter after the race and he finished 27th.

Johnny Sauter crashes Austin Hill in retaliation. (Fox Sports 1)
Johnny Sauter crashes Austin Hill in retaliation. (Fox Sports 1)

NASCAR’s format helps make this a stupid penalty

NASCAR’s win-and-in playoff format is partially to blame for this weak penalty. If Sauter was winless in 2019 and looking for a win or forced to qualify for the eight-driver playoff field on points, a one-race suspension with a waiver has a lot more bite.

But since Sauter already won a race, he’s getting an off-weekend with his title hopes still fully intact. Could he be missing out on more playoff points with a race win or a stage win or two at Gateway on Saturday? Sure. But it’s more likely than not that Sauter would have scored no playoff points at all on Saturday night even if he was in the race.

NASCAR could have easily suspended Sauter and prevented him from qualifying for the playoffs by not giving him a waiver. But that penalty would have been too heavy-handed. What Sauter did at Iowa was worthy of significant discipline. But eliminating his championship hopes altogether would have been a steep penalty for retaliating against Hill’s retaliation.

A more effective penalty for Sauter would have been a rescinding of the five playoff points he accrued with his Dover win or a ban on getting any more playoff points for the next handful of races. A playoff points penalty would have sent an effective message that damaged but didn’t debilitate Sauter’s playoff hopes.

A suspension with a waiver sends a message of tacit acceptance for Sauter’s actions even if it’s a legitimate attempt at a consistent punishment.

First time a waiver has been used for an on-track penalty

Sauter is not the first driver to be suspended by NASCAR and granted a playoff waiver. But he’s the first driver to get suspended by NASCAR for his on-track conduct and get one.

Kurt Busch was suspended for the first three races of the 2015 season after a series of allegations made by his ex-girlfriend. After Busch wasn’t criminally charged regarding any of the allegations, NASCAR reinstated Busch and said that he would be eligible to make the playoffs despite not attempting to qualify for every race.

In a similar incident to Sauter’s, Kurt’s brother Kyle was suspended for the Xfinity Series and Cup Series races at Texas Motor Speedway in 2011 after he crashed Ron Hornaday in anger under caution during a Truck Series race. While admittedly severe, a similar ban for Sauter would have sent a consistent message that NASCAR doesn’t tolerate drivers angrily retaliating against each other under caution.

But that suspension came before the elimination-style playoff format that’s currently contested in all three series. And while Busch was in the middle of the cumulative 10-race playoff format in the Cup Series, he was more than a full race out of the points lead ahead of the Texas race.

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports

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