NASCAR dug its own hole with Chase Elliott incident

Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)
Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images) /

Chase Elliott’s spin after contact with teammate Kyle Larson late in Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race raised some eyebrows.

Hendrick Motorsports’ Kyle Larson took the checkered flag in Sunday’s WISE Power 400 at Auto Club Speedway, earning him his first win of the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season and 11th since joining Rick Hendrick’s team last year; no other driver has won more than four races during that span.

But the win wasn’t without controversy for the driver who was forced to give up his initial starting position and start at the rear of the field for the 200-lap race around the four-turn, 2.0-mile (3.219-kilometer) oval in Fontana, California due to unapproved adjustments to his #5 Chevrolet.

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Early in the race, teammate Chase Elliott took the lead and ran the high line in turns three and four. But contact with the wall led to damage and a subsequent spin, and he ended up two laps down.

Elliott was able to overcome that deficit and not only get back on the lead lap but battle for the win. But in the closing laps, he found himself in the wall again, this time after Larson drove into the side of him as he tried to make a move for the lead to the outside of both Larson in the middle and Team Penske’s Joey Logano on the inside going into turn one.

Elliott was justifiably left upset with what had happened, and he was told over the radio that it was a “d*** move” by the driver of the #5 Chevrolet.

Larson claimed he didn’t know Elliott was there and that his focus was on side drafting the #22 Ford, and spotter Tyler Monn came to his defense, taking “full responsibility” for making a “mistake” and focusing more on the #22 Ford than the #9 Chevrolet, leading to the contact.

Nevertheless, the drama got fans talking. Not only was it a potential outcome-altering clash, but it was a clash between teammates — and the two most recent champions.

What happened next also got fans talking.

At that point, Larson had a comfortable lead and appeared to be well on his way to victory, with the only thing standing in his way being a potential caution flag period.

And Elliott ended up causing that caution flag period with a spin several laps later, which he blamed on a broken toe link, noting that it had already broken once earlier in the race. His reaction on the radio when the crash happened indicated that it had broken.

A restart ensued, and while Larson did temporarily lose the lead to Trackhouse Racing Team’s Daniel Suarez, he was able to regain it and claim the win by 0.195 seconds ahead of Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Dillon.

Given when Elliott’s spin occurred, fans were quick to accuse him of spinning on purpose and attempting to manipulate the outcome of the race to get back at Larson for effectively ending his chance to win, even though toe link issues had happened to other teams throughout the race.

At that point, he had nothing to compete for, he was clearly frustrated on the radio, and a yellow flag was obviously something that Larson didn’t want to see.

But even if they had concluded that Elliott spun intentionally, NASCAR wouldn’t exactly have been in a position to make a judgment call.

Given the current NASCAR standard, the only way NASCAR would actually do anything about what is perceived to be an “intentional spin” is if Elliott were to admit it, which isn’t going to happen, whether true or not.

Let’s take a look at the example that was set toward the end of the 2019 season.

In the round of 8 playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway in November 2019, Bubba Wallace, who wasn’t even a playoff driver, spun out during a pit sequence to save himself from losing more ground due to a flat tire.

So a spin by the driver who ended up 28th in the point standings after the season finale manipulated the outcome of the race for several drivers, including a number of playoff drivers.

NASCAR did nothing to penalize him for the spin, even though it was an obvious intentional spin.

But after he admitted that he had spun intentionally, saying that he wasn’t the only one to do it and that nothing was going to change until NASCAR started doing something about it, they handed him a “behavioral penalty”, which included a $50,000 fine and a 50-point penalty.

He was basically penalized for telling on himself. Technically speaking, NASCAR never truly penalized him for the spin itself, and by penalizing him for no other reason than admitting it, they effectively conceded that it’s a gray area over which they do not really have control.

This standard was brought to the forefront last year as well.

Last March, Kyle Busch intentionally spun out with a flat tire in the Truck Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway to save himself from losing even more ground. Afterward, he refused to comment on the matter at all for this very reason.

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As a result, he was not penalized.

After this situation unfolded, NASCAR did say that they would be taking a closer look at seemingly intentional spins, as they had long been lenient and not inclined to make judgment calls.

But nearly a year later, there haven’t been any significant developments to this situation since then, and even this element of “looking into the matter” was more about flat tires than anything.

Elliott’s situation, regardless of your opinion on whether he spun out intentionally or not, went into that gray area, and it was arguably even more intriguing than a flat tire scenario. It is sure to generate more discussions, even though his explanation for the spin was 100% logical.

There have been other questionable spins since Busch’s, and with far less logical explanations, yet we haven’t seen any sort of significant action taken since the Wallace incident three seasons ago.

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So even if Elliott actually did spin on purpose, it’s not like it would make a difference from a penalty standpoint, for one simple reason: he never came right out and said he did. It’s a proven system of innocent until admission of guilt. And Chase Elliott is innocent — whether he really is or not.