I’ll be honest. While it felt like Bubba Wallace likely had a suspension coming following a nasty retaliatory move on Kyle Larson in Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and subsequent post-crash shove-fest, which led to a lot of public outrage on social media, I was still shocked by the penalty.
I fully expected the past precedent of drivers not being suspended for on-track incidents to continue this time around and that Wallace would be competing in Sunday’s Dixie Vodka 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway with a few less points on his yearly total and/or a little less heavy wallet.
I mean, can you blame me for feeling that way?
Before Wallace’s suspension, which was handed out on Tuesday, it had been nearly seven years since a driver was last suspended for an on-track incident in the NASCAR Cup Series. The last occurrence was Matt Kenseth, who was suspended following the fall race at Martinsville in 2015.
Kenseth returned to the track with no hood on his mangled No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing machine following a dust-up with Brad Keselowski with 65 laps left in the 500-lap event.
Kenseth, who was a lapped car at the time, decided to exact revenge on his rival, Joey Logano for an incident several weeks prior at Kansas Speedway. As Logano came around to lap Kenseth, the 2003 NASCAR Cup Series champion made the decision that Logano would not be finishing that race.
Kenseth flat-out didn’t brake heading into Turn 1 and absolutely plowed Logano’s No. 22 Team Penske Ford into the outside wall, ending his day.
Logano wasn’t just on the lead lap, and he wasn’t just the leader of the race at the time of the incident. Logano was a NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs front-runner, who was heading toward a win that would lock him into the 2015 Championship 4.
Kenseth in one fell swoop altered the entire outcome of not just the Martinsville race, but potentially the entire championship battle as Logano ultimately failed to make it into the Championship 4 that season, and wouldn’t win a NASCAR Cup Series title until 2018.
While Kenseth’s move was defiant and borderline insane by today’s standards, it was applauded by the fans at Martinsville Speedway that day, and there was a level of surprise when he received his two-race suspension.
While, yes, it has felt that these types of incidents have deserved more than the slaps on the wrist that they have received in the years following Kenseth’s suspension, it feels like a very aggressive change in the punishment system, especially when you factor in that there have been similar incidents that have occurred in the last few months in the sport, where the offender was not suspended.
That was as egregious as it gets. And the incident occurred heading into an uphill blind turn, where drivers could not see the impending doom until it was far too late.
And while NASCAR claims that additional data available on the Next Gen car allowed them to conclude that Wallace’s contact with Larson was intentional, which is what led to the suspension, they knew Gragson’s incident was intentional as well as he admitted it.
“I guess [Karam] forgot the three times he [threw] it off in the corner, doored us and ran us off the racetrack,” Gragson explained. “Eventually, you get sick and tired of it. I hate that people’s stuff got torn up, but three times is a bit ridiculous. Just today, not even in the past. I take responsibility, I hate it for his guys. But fighting to race for a championship here, and really over getting run over.”
“It’s over to me,” Gragson said of the feud with Karam. “He starts it, I’m the one who finished. We’re good.”
Even Wallace wasn’t brash enough to openly admit that he intentionally crashed Larson on Sunday. For that matter, Kenseth wasn’t brash enough to admit crashing Logano was on purpose, either.
“We had so much damage on the right front, I should have probably just put it into the garage,” Kenseth stated after the crash. “Got into [Turn 1] and couldn’t get it to turn and ran Joey over.”
So, what was the penalty for Gragson, who openly admitted that he caused a 16-car pileup with an intentional retaliatory crash?
Gragson was docked 30 points and fined $35,000, but he was not suspended by NASCAR. Gragson wasn’t even parked for the remainder of the race at Road America. In fact, Gragson was allowed to continue on and scored a solid eighth-place finish on that day.
When you fast forward to the here and now, Gragson’s penalty, which already seemed very light at the time, seems borderline laughable now.
I admit that I don’t hate the punishment dished out to Wallace this week. Actually, I can even agree that the punishment fits the crime. And I’m not the only one. Several veteran drivers in the sport have expressed the same feelings.
On Wednesday, Kevin Harvick tweeted, “Intentionally hooking people in the [Right Rear] should never be acceptable. Protect us from ourselves. I hope this is the beginning of the end of it happening.”
Denny Hamlin, Wallace’s competitor, and team owner, also sides with NASCAR on the ruling, as his 23XI Racing team will not appeal the penalty.
At the end of the day, I just hope this becomes the new precedent for when drivers intentionally hook another driver’s rear quarter panel and send them rocketing out of control causing them to slam hard into a wall or barrier, or causing them to collect several others that were minding their own business and had nothing to do with the initial beef.
If it was a wrong enough infraction to warrant a suspension after Sunday’s race at Las Vegas, it’s a wrong enough infraction to warrant a suspension no matter the race, no matter who is involved, and no matter what NASCAR National Series event the incident occurs in going forward.