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Why Were There Not As Many Driver Rivalries in 2023?

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In 2023, the NASCAR Cup Series did not see as many major rivalries flare up throughout the season. There were moments where driver tempers would flare up, but, rarely did they advance any way past that week. Well, what caused this, and are NASCAR rivalries maybe not as big as they once were? Is it possible that NASCAR’s recent crackdown on rough driving and intentional wrecks has caused drivers to be warier about how they go about beef with drivers?

NASCAR Rivalries in the Past

For the most part, NASCAR rivalries tend to work themselves out over the course of a season, and there are plenty of recent examples of rivalries that have boiled over throughout the years. One example would be Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon in 2012, which started with a run-in at Martinsville and ended with an intentional wreck at Phoenix. Eventually, it went too far, and NASCAR penalized Jeff Gordon following Phoenix stopping short of suspending him, however.

Another example of a rivalry that worked its way out over the course of a season was Denny Hamlin vs Ross Chastain. Throughout 2022, Chastain and Hamlin ran into each other multiple times. The two highest drama run-ins came when Hamlin impeded Chastain at Gateway, and when the two got together battling for the win at Pocono.

How Things Changed This Year

Typically, NASCAR allows drivers to work things out on track with the catchphrase being “Boys, Have at it”. However, this year NASCAR put their foot down multiple times. This started in 2023 with a rivalry that went back to 2022 between Ross Chastain and Denny Hamlin, where Hamlin was penalized after admitting to intentionally wrecking Chastain.

Following this, NASCAR has dropped the hammer on drivers when they have wrecked others intentionally, admission or not. Chase Elliott, Sheldon Creed, and Corey Heim. Of course, wrecking someone intentionally is dangerous, and NASCAR has penalized drivers for this before, but not always have they suspended drivers. They suspended Chase Elliott this year, and they suspended Bubba Wallace last year.

This year, there were a few rivalries that appeared to begin flaring up, but they never went beyond one race. Ross Chastain and Noah Gragson fought at Kansas, but nothing came beyond that. Denny Hamlin had run-ins with Kyle Larson at Pocono and Ryan Blaney at Homestead, but, nothing came beyond those races. In years past, we have seen run-ins like this often flare up into rivalries that last an entire season as is evidenced in the examples above, but, why?

Why Has This Shift Happened?

NASCAR Policing The Sport Closer

NASCAR has drawn a major line by going as far as suspending drivers for intentionally wrecking others. Think back to Jeff Gordon in 2012, he was not suspended for intentionally wrecking Clint Bowyer. Now, suspending drivers for intentional wrecks is understandable given how dangerous that truly is, but it may give drivers some pause.

If they have an issue with another driver, then they have to be careful with how they go about retaliation. They now know that NASCAR will drop the hammer if they go a bit too far. That can give drivers pause, however, that does not mean there is an overall ban on retaliation.

Rivalries are great for the sport, and they are great for NASCAR. There are different ways to go about showing a driver your displeasure instead of just wrecking them outright, and that was evidenced by Noah Gragson confronting Ross Chastain at Kansas and even Kyle Larson swerving at Denny Hamlin under caution at Pocono. Sure, the closer policing may give drivers pause, but it’s not an outright ban on
“Bump and Runs” or even discussing it with a driver.

Lack of Opportunity for Drivers to Keep Their Rivalries Going

Following these flare-ups this season many of these drivers never had a real opportunity to continue their rivalry via another incident. Ross Chastain and Noah Gragson were not in nearly the same level of equipment, and Gragson was suspended 2/3 of the way through the season.

Larson was never in a great spot to retaliate against Hamlin for the rest of the season after Pocono. After the run-in at Homestead, Hamlin and Blaney did make some contact at Martinsville, but, by the end of the race, they were far apart on track. Hamlin even made a comment on the radio about the contact and how hard the two were racing.

This race at Martinsville shows that drivers will continue to race hard with each other, and frustration and rivalries still develop. There is a way for it to happen, but, the moment just never arrived.

Is it possible that NASCAR policing on-track incidents the way they did this year impacted how drivers approached displeasure with other drivers? Maybe it is, but, there was no ban on rivalries or ban on drivers policing these things on track to themselves. It just seemed the correct moment for any sort of retaliation never really came about. It will be interesting to see how 2024 goes, and if there will be any rivalries that form throughout the season.

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