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Tempers Raging in NASCAR as Drivers Reach Boiling Point Heading toward Brickyard

Maybe it’s the weather. Maybe it’s the spot on the schedule. Maybe it’s just the dog days of summer.

But for whatever reason, tempers are starting to flare between drivers in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and Xfinity Series. That angst could set up some feisty duels between drivers with long memories or scores to settle at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the Indiana 250 for the Xfinity Series on Saturday, Sept. 7 and Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard Powered by Florida Georgia Line on Sunday, Sept. 8.

Emotion always has been part of racing – that’s nothing new. But there seems to have been an uptick in aggro between drivers in the last few weeks that has brought an enticing human element to the Cup Series season as it heads for its regular-season finale at the Brickyard and the Xfinity Series as it also moves toward the Playoffs.

Let’s take a closer look at the recent flare-ups:

William Byron vs. Kyle Busch, Watkins Glen: William Byron stepped into one of the biggest seats in racing when he replaced Jeff Gordon in 2018 behind the wheel of the famous No. 24 Hendrick Chevrolet. Much like Gordon in the early 90s, Byron is a clean-cut “boy wonder” who looks more like the kid next door than an elite Cup Series driver.

Two-time Brickyard winner Kyle Busch, one of the veteran “bad boys” of NASCAR, tried to drive under Byron in Turn 1 at Watkins Glen. The two cars made contact, and Busch spun. Then a few laps later, Busch retaliated by giving Byron the “chrome horn,” nudging Byron out of the way and into the grass with a tap to his rear bumper entering the Bus Stop chicane.

On an ensuing caution period, Byron’s crew chief Chad Knaus urged his driver to plant his tires in the asphalt and send a message to Busch. “If I see that 18 (Busch) come back around without you knocking the (blank) out of him, we’re going to have a problem,” Knaus told Byron on the radio.

Byron obliged, accelerating to hit the rear of Busch’s Toyota during a stage-ending caution period. But the cagey Busch saw it coming, and brake-checked Byron, causing significant front-end damage to Byron’s car when he tagged the back of Busch’s car. That damage caused Byron to drop to a 21st-place finish, 10 spots behind Busch.

Still, team owner Rick Hendrick defended Knaus’ order for Byron to nail Busch. 

"I think you have to stand your ground in this sport,” Hendrick said. “If you let people push you around, they're going to push you around.

"He's running up the front, so I think this was his eighth front row start, and he's learning. People don't cut him any slack because he's a rookie, then he needs to let them know he'll come back.”

Bubba Wallace vs. Kyle Busch, Watkins Glen: “Rowdy” Busch is a take-no-prisoners lightning rod behind the wheel of a stock car, so it wasn’t surprising to see him involved in two on-track jousts at Watkins Glen.

Busch battled with William Byron and then banged with Bubba Wallace.

The firestorm ignited when Wallace spun into the tire barrier in the Carousel turn on Lap 39 after a bang from Busch. After driving his Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet to the pits for repairs, Bubba had revenge on his mind.

Payback came on Lap 62. Busch and Wallace raced side-by-side down the front stretch at The Glen, bouncing off each other two or three times at full speed. Busch took the lead heading into Turn 1 over Wallace, but that was short-lived.

Unlike Byron’s heavy-metal bumping attempt on Busch earlier in the race, Wallace nudged the rear of Busch’s Toyota enough to spin him in Turn 1 and drove past for the position.

“I’m going to get my respect on the track, and I don’t care who it is,” Wallace said after the race. “That’s for when guys fail to think about the young guys, I guess, or with me. … I won’t put up with no (crap). So I flat-out wrecked his ass back. So I won’t be like, ‘Oh, it’s Kyle Busch, he didn’t mean to.’ (Screw) him.”

Wallace’s actual words were a bit harsher than “crap” and “screw,” but this is a family website. Given that Wallace fights for every position until his knuckles are welded to the steering wheel, there’s a good chance this rivalry could flare up again at IMS.

Jimmie Johnson vs. Ryan Blaney, Watkins Glen: You know temperatures are rising in drivers’ brains when Jimmie Johnson – a seven-time Cup Series champion and one of the most laid-back guys in the NASCAR garage – is spitting flames at a rival after a race.

Johnson had stern words with Ryan Blaney on pit road after Watkins Glen because Blaney hit the rear of Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet entering the Carousel with 29 laps remaining, sending Johnson sliding into the tire barrier and damaging his car.

That damage helped Johnson drop to a 19th-place finish. Johnson clings to the 16th and final spot in the Playoffs with just four races remaining until the Playoffs, and he teeters on the brink of missing the postseason for the first time in 16 years.

“I couldn’t hear what he was saying, his lips were quivering so bad that he can’t even speak,” Johnson said about his pit road confrontation with Blaney. “I guess he was nervous or scared or both, I don’t know what the hell the problem is. He just drove through me and spun us out, and it clearly has big implications on what we’re trying to do for the Playoffs right now. Clearly not happy with his actions there.”

Pressure continues to mount on Johnson as he is winless in his last 81 Cup Series starts, with his last victory coming in June 2017 at Dover. There’s a very good chance Jimmie’s cool façade may boil over again before the Playoffs, perhaps even at Indy, where he has won four times.

Justin Allgaier vs. Ross Chastain, Watkins Glen: A flare-up between Justin Allgaier and Ross Chastain ranks right up there with “sun sets in west” on the shock meter. There is plenty of history between these two.

Their intense Xfinity Series rivalry resulted in bent sheet metal again last weekend at Watkins Glen. Allgaier and Chastain raced side-by-side through the Bus Stop chicane on Lap 15, with Chastain’s right front tapping the left rear of Allgaier and sending his Chevrolet spinning into the tire barrier.

The rear of Allgaier’s car was damaged, but he was able to continue. And he started to hunt down Chastain for payback.

Retribution came on Lap 21 when Allgaier followed Chastain through the Bus Stop and tapped the rear of his car into the Carousel turn. The contact forced Chastain wide and into heavy contact with the tire barrier. His Chevrolet was wrecked, while Allgaier went on to finish fourth.

Chastain didn’t say much about the incidents after the race, but reigning Indiana 250 winner Allgaier wasn’t as reserved.

“Ross and I have a rocky relationship,” the usually mild-mannered Allgaier said. “We’ve had some contact in the past. He took advantage in the Bus Stop and wrecked me on purpose. That was disappointing, and I had every intention of probably turning him around, but I didn’t want to put him into the fence. I had no intention of wrecking that car, but I wanted to make sure I got the point across.

“That’s not the first time he’s run into me and hurt our day, and it’s just frustrating when people race you like that week in and week out.”

It’s impossible to think this feud is over. Not a chance.

Daniel Suarez vs. Bubba Wallace, Pocono: This episode of road rage was a joke to Bubba Wallace, but it was anything but a laughing matter to Daniel Suarez on July 28 at Pocono Raceway.

The two young drivers, who are friends, made contact on the final lap of the fast, “Tricky Triangle” oval at Pocono. Wallace gave Suarez a one-finger salute during the cooldown lap, which triggered Suarez into a heated confrontation with Wallace on pit road after the race.

“I do it to the guys that I like and can race around,” Wallace said. “If it’s Kyle Busch or (Martin) Truex are coming up to lap us, I’ll give them the finger, hey, come on by. It’s funny. We’ll talk about it and laugh at it later. Truex is starting to pick up on it. It’s funny. That’s all it was.”

Mexico native Suarez saw Wallace’s Bronx cheer very differently.

“Where I came from, you can kick someone’s butt for doing that,” Suarez said. “He said he was playing, but I’m not dumb. I know he wasn’t. That was his excuse. That’s OK. We are buddies. We move on and focus on the next one.

“We are good friends, but sometimes he drives a little bit over his head on the racetrack. There have been a couple of times he’s been a little bit too aggressive to myself in different situations. I don’t get to race him that often, but when I do, he’s a little bit too aggressive, which is OK. I don’t have a problem, but sometimes you can cross the line and get mad.”

It's a safe bet that very few fans would dislike seeing this kind of emotion, anger and contact in the Indiana 250 and Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard Powered by Florida Georgia Line on Sept. 7-8 at IMS.

Have it it, boys!

 
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