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Friday 5: What to do about lack of respect on the track?

Parker Kligerman says Kyle Busch is "100% correct" that respect has been lost between drivers given a culture change and more competitiveness due to increased parity, and a frustrated Steve Letarte doesn't disagree.

It’s no surprise that a lack of respect among drivers was brought up, as Kyle Busch did last week, with the changes NASCAR has enacted in recent years.

With a win earning a driver a playoff spot, the equality of the cars, the importance of track position and stage points awarded, there’s a greater emphasis on running toward the front.

For some, lose enough positions and they can lose their rides. For others, give up a few points and that might be what keeps them from advancing in the playoffs.

All that makes each lap more meaningful. That elevates the tension in the garage and the lack of patience on the track.

But how much longer should NASCAR allow the lack of respect continue before series officials intercede? How should they do so? When should they let drivers handle matters?

“It’s as simple as what does NASCAR want,” NASCAR on NBC analyst Steve Letarte said in the video above. “If they want cleaner racing, if they want more respect, then I feel they now have an opportunity to now jump into the ring of refereeing these races. Whether they want to do that or not, we will see.”

Elton Sawyer, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, said that series officials viewed Denny Hamlin’s incident with Ross Chastain on the last lap at Phoenix as a “racing incident” until Hamlin stated on his podcast the next day he meant to do so.

NASCAR fined Hamlin 25 points and $50,000 for his actions. Hamlin is appealing.

NASCAR did nothing when Hamlin forced Chastain up the track and into the wall racing for the lead at Pocono last summer. Chastain’s car came down the track and was hit by Kevin Harvick’s car as Harvick ran fourth.

Asked about how much it bothered him that the feud between Hamlin and Chastain could impact him, Busch said: “It almost did last year when Denny did it at Pocono. It about caught us in it, but we were able to sneak through.

“When it comes to the time it starts affecting other people’s races and such, again, I think it leaves the door open for you to go punch somebody in the face.”

Harvick didn’t punch anyone but he responded after that incident at Pocono.

“I voiced my opinion to the driver I was unhappy with,” Harvick said of that situation. “I did that privately and that’s the way I chose to handle it.”

Daniel Suarez, who is in his seventh season in Cup, has seen a difference in how drivers treat each other over his time in the series.

“I remember my first year in Cup,” Suarez said. “I remember drivers, we used to give the finger — not the middle finger — but the finger of, ‘Hey, you go ahead, you’re better than me right now.’

“You don’t see that anymore. Track position is so important. It’s so difficult to pass. I feel like it’s a combination of all those things, and I think that has made people not to respect each other.

“If you are a couple of tenths (of a second) faster than me and you’re catching me, I’m going to block you instead of letting you go. Those are things that we look like a**holes out there, but that’s what we have to do to keep track position and try to get some stage points.”

The emotions are building throughout the field.

“I see the frustration from some guys who probably race similar to me and feel like they get run over, there’s a handful of guys in the field that feel like that,” Erik Jones said. “It’s tough. It’s a tough balance.

“At some point, you’ve got to stand your ground and say you’re not going to take it anymore.”

That’s why NASCAR may need to play a bigger role in such situations.

“The drivers aren’t going to change,” Letarte said. “You can throw that out. If you think this is going to be changed from behind the steering wheel, you haven’t met enough race car drivers. … Some outside source, in my opinion, is going to have to change this mantra or opinion of what is acceptable on the racetrack.”

Harvick said he would be good with more from NASCAR on the matter. And he knows from first-hand experience.

“I like the iron fish,” Harvick said. “I think it’s important to have those guys (feuding) sit in the same room when you have instances like we’ve had several times.

“I think the important part of that process is to make them sit face-to-face, that was always the most effective for me, and have questions asked by whoever the leader is, in my case, it was Mike Helton, and voice their expectations of how they should handle it between themselves and how they would hope it would not get out of hand and not affect other people. ... I’m of the opinion (NASCAR) should at least lead conversations in an in-person setting.”

2. Making an impact?

One of the intriguing storylines this weekend at Circuit of the Americas will be how Tyler Reddick and Toyota perform.

Reddick won a series-high two road course races last year (Road America and Indianapolis) in a Chevrolet with Richard Childress Racing, while Toyota struggled.

Toyota’s six drivers combined for an average finish of 20th or worse in four of the six Cup road course events last year. They led only 4.4% of the 529 laps run at those venues a year ago.

Reddick joined 23XI Racing and Toyota ahead of this season. A key question is how much of an impact can he make with Toyota’s road course program.

“I think a driver can come in and make an impact as far as not just on the racetrack, but also the culture,” said Austin Cindric, who drives a Ford for Team Penske. “As far as giving the team confidence, ‘Hey this is a somebody who’s clearly been able to make this work. We have to believe in how far off we are or aren’t.’”

Kaulig Racing ran AJ Allmendinger five of the six road course events in 2021 to develop its Cup program. Allmendinger won at Indianapolis for the Chevrolet team and scored top 10s at COTA and the Daytona road course.

In 2022, the first year of the Next Gen car, Allmendinger ran 18 Cup races, including all six road course events. He finished second at Watkins Glen and had top 10s at the Charlotte Roval, Indianapolis and Road America. He was battling for the win at COTA until contact from Ross Chastain knocked him out of the lead on the final lap.

Allmendinger says Reddick’s experience last year can carry over even with the the change in manufacturer and team.

“The biggest thing is Tyler, he’s got all the talent in the world,” Allmendinger said. “We’ve seen that, and we continually see that. … Winning those races, he can have the feel of the race car.

“He knows going into the racetrack and after a couple of laps like, ‘Hey, this is the feel that I felt last year and what I want.’ If it’s not, he can kind of lead off of what he felt last year and try to at least work toward that.”

Reddick already has run many laps at COTA this year. He was the Toyota driver at a Goodyear tire test there in January.

“Our tire test in January went pretty well,” Reddick said. “We were definitely wanting to make gains, but the knowledge that we gathered from that test gave us some things to work on and work through in the time that we’ve had since that test to when we race this weekend.

“We’re really anxious to see what that all means. We’re glad that we’ve got a 50-minute practice (Friday at COTA) to kind of shake things out. The whole Toyota camp is curious to see how their stuff stacks up and where we can make it better.”

3. No stage breaks

This weekend marks the first Cup race without stage breaks since they were instituted before the 2017 season.

NASCAR will award points for the end of each stage in the Cup, Xfinity and Craftsman Truck races this weekend at COTA, but the race will continue. There will be no caution specifically for the end of the stage.

That could alter strategies. Typically, top teams would pit before the end of the first stage, giving up stage points to get track position after the rest of the field pitted during the stage break. In last year’s six Cup road course races, 48.3% of the top-10 finishers did not score points in either of the first two stages.

“It will definitely change it to where the fast cars are going to score points,” Joey Logano said of the elimination of stage breaks at road courses. “You used to be able to leave a road course and even if you didn’t have a fast car, you could manipulate the stages to where you could have a decent day out of it.

“Now, the fast cars, they’ll score the most points, as it should be.”

At COTA last year, Ryan Blaney scored a race-high 47 points — four more than winner Ross Chastain and runner-up Alex Bowman — despite finishing sixth. The difference was that Blaney scored points in both stages, while Chastain and Bowman scored points in only one stage each.

At Indianapolis, Kyle Busch finished 11th and scored 38 points — two points less than winner Tyler Reddick and fifth-place finisher Bubba Wallace. Busch scored points in both stages, while Wallace scored points in one stage and Reddick did not score points in either stage.

“The road courses have been a big challenge since stage breaks became a thing,” Martin Truex Jr. said. “You kind of either had to pick, ‘Do we want stage points or do you want to go for the win?’

“It was really, really hard, and I think we’ve only seen maybe one instance of somebody getting both. (The rule change) puts strategy back into it. You can play your gameplan. You always always have those cautions that could mix up the strategy, but they’re not planned, so nobody knows when they’re coming, which I think is more exciting.”

4. Star-studded field

Two former world champions, a former IMSA champion and a seven-time Cup champion are among those entered this weekend at COTA.

Kimi Raikkonen, the 2007 Formula One champion, and 2009 Formula One champion Jenson Button are entered. Raikkonen returns to the Project 91 car at Trackhouse Racing that he drove at Watkins Glen last year before he was collected in a crash. He won the 2018 Formula One race at COTA driving for Ferrari. It was his final F1 victory.

Button will drive the No. 15 for Rick Ware Racing in partnership with Stewart-Haas Racing. Button also will drive the Garage 56 NASCAR entry at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June.

Ryan Blaney is looking forward to racing those drivers.

“I think it’s great that they want to try to their hand in our sport, two really incredible drivers of their series wanting to try something else,” Blaney told NBC Sports.

“That’s what racers do, right? They go and they want to try other race cars and other tracks and things like that. Those guys are the same way. I think it’s fantastic. I look forward to racing with Kimi again and getting to, hopefully, meet Jenson because I was a big fan of his as a kid.”

Also competing will Jordan Taylor, a multi-time IMSA champion, seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and IndyCar driver Conor Daly.

Taylor will drive the No. 9 for Chase Elliott, who continues to recover from a broken leg suffered last month snowboarding. Taylor won the 2013 Grand Am DP title, 2017 IMSA Prototype championship and was the 2020-21 IMSA GTLM champion.

Johnson makes his first start in the No. 84 for Legacy Motor Club, the team he co-owns, since competing in the Daytona 500. Johnson will be a teammate to Button in the Garage 56 NASCAR effort at Le Mans.

“I think he’s going to go through a huge learning curve,” teammate Erik Jones said of Johnson running his first road course race in the Next Gen car. “This car, on the road course, is so different. … He has done a lot of work for this weekend from some schools and some sim stuff.”

Daly also is back with The Money Team Racing since making the Daytona 500.

5. All-Star Race format

The NASCAR All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro Speedway is less than two months away. While no format has been announced for the May 21 event, Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick offered their ideas after testing tires there this week.

“Don’t make it a short run,” Dillon said of the race’s final segment. “I think that if you want to see something fun, you’ve got to keep it at least 50 laps or more for that last run. I don’t think we should have short runs.

“If this is a throwback kind of All-Star Race classic, whatever you want to call it, you should have a long run to finish and just let the best car, best driver win it and don’t make it into a 10-lap shootout, wreckfest. You might get one of those, but the real racing here is who can take their stuff and be the one at the end. You might have some guys that struggle at the beginning of the run that finish the run really strong, which is exciting in my mind.”

Said Reddick: “I think after 10 laps, tires are important, probably even sooner than that, honestly. It’s pretty easy to abuse the tires here. I don’t know about format, honestly, but if there’s an opportunity to pit, I think people are going to take it and put tires on.

“I certainly think somewhere in that 50-75 lap range, it will be in the hands of drivers. Who is going to push at the beginning of the run, who is going to take care of their stuff and try to run them back down.”