NASCAR Cup Series
Steve Phelps Vows Better Communication with Drivers on Safety
Oct 9, 2022
The Bank of America Roval 400, not to mention the entire complexion of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, was ultimately decided by a piece of signage that had been spotted on the racing surface with four laps remaining.
There was more to it, of course, but Chase Elliott would have likely won the race had the caution not flown and Kyle Larson would have advanced to the next round on points. Instead, the caution set up a pair of chaotic restarts in which Elliott was spun and Christopher Bell put himself in contention to win on fresher tires.
Bell entered the weekend with no other chance to advance other than winning and Joe Gibbs Racing had been terrible on road courses all season. Meanwhile, Larson, was only at risk of elimination because he slapped the wall on Lap 99 and broke a right rear toe link -- the repairs costing him five laps and falling to 35th in the running order.
But again, had the race stayed green, Larson would have likely advanced by seven points over Daniel Suarez. Chase Briscoe would have advanced on points and Bell would have left on the outside looking in. Instead, the race resumed under suddenly wild conditions.
Bell took the lead from Harvick on the final restart and advanced in walk-off fashion. Chase Briscoe earned the final spot by two points over Larson.
"Just a dumb mistake on my part," Larson said of the contact that damaged his car. "It’s frustrating to end like this. But, as up-and-down as I was this season, I’m not surprised that I made another mistake. A costly one at an important time."
Larson placed all the blame on himself. He immediately apologized profusely over the radio to crew chief Cliff Daniels and spotter Tyler Monn, but there have also been engine failures and performance obstacles over the summer.
"There’s been no real rhythm to it for me and our team," Larson said. "But we fought hard all year to get better, and we’re going to continue to fight and continue to work hard to be better for the rest of the season, as well as being more prepared for next year.
"It’s days like today that you can take positives from…and really focus on areas that you need to be better as a person, and as a driver, and as a team and come back stronger."
Daniels said his driver was too hard on himself and that there was plenty of factors that played into their elimination.
"He’s accountable to the mistakes he’s made and we’re accountable to ours," Daniels told Racing America after the race. "No way can Kyle put this season on his shoulders. Our team overall, that includes me as the leader of the team (and our) pit crew have all made our fair share of mistakes that we just can’t make.
"We’ve had three blown engines this year, a lot of things go wrong and overall, the things you can’t have happen in order to have a successful season. I have all the confidence in the world in this team, and our engine shop to be better but we made too many mistakes along the way.
"And that’s not on Kyle in any capacity and I stand by him as one of the best drivers in the world right and certainly in NASCAR. There are only a few like him and I’ll stand by him all day long.
Chase Briscoe was sent around during the penultimate restart and found himself dropping from five points ahead of Suarez to nine points behind Austin Cindric. But the caution gave the No. 14 team the opportunity to take tires and they drove up the running order as a result.
Bell took a playoff spot by virtue of the win and Briscoe made up enough spots to take the final transfer spot by two points.
However, NASCAR will review all points of data from the final lap to determine if Cole Custer intentionally blocked the field with the intent of allowing Briscoe to make the passes needed to advance. That data will include video, radio communications and SMT data.
It’s worth noting that Briscoe and Larson were tied on points taking the white flag, but Briscoe owned the tiebreaker before the chicane in question where Briscoe passed Custer and Austin Dillon to gain the two points he ultimately advanced by, so it might be a moot point.
Regardless, NASCAR released a statement on Sunday night that it would review the lap but any penalties would not change the complexion of the Round of 8.
"NASCAR is reviewing data, video and radio transmissions from the 41 car following its incident on the backstretch during the final lap. NASCAR will communicate the results of the review early this week. Any potential penalties would not affect the Round of 8 field."
Daniels said he was told of the potential appearance of blocking by Custer and hopes that NASCAR would do its due diligence.
"I would hope NASCAR would review it anyway just because of what happened in 2013," Daniels said. "That was a big black eye for the sport, and I hope that’s not what happened today. I’ve been told it may have but I don’t know. I haven’t seen the replay. I would hope that’s not the case, but if it is, I hope NASCAR would be forthcoming and look at it."
Custer, for his part, says he had a flat tire.
"What happened with me is that I tried to pass (Tyler Reddick) and he ran me down to the apron in (oval Turn) 1 and 2," Custer said. "When I came back onto the track, I had a vibration, and then (the team) started yelling at me that we had a flat tire.
"So, I was just going to ease it into the corner to see what I had and I just got ran over by (Austin Dillon) twice. That was my perspective. I thought I had a flat, thought I had a vibration and I got ran over."
At the same time, Briscoe, on his new tires was just able to send it so much deeper into the chicane thane everyone else and made it stick.
"All day long, I thought if I could get to the '6' (marker), that's all I had," Briscoe said. "I went to the '5' and even just past the '5' and even locked the tires up. I was afraid I was going to hop the curb and have to serve a stop and go. Somehow, the thing stuck. Johnny (Klausmeier, crew chief) put qualifying pressures in because it was overtime and it stuck. I just drove it in there way harder than I had all day because I knew every point mattered. I still can’t believe it stuck."
Regardless of what NASCAR determines about the role Custer may or may not have played regarding playoff eliminations, the race was fundamentally changed by the signage that brought out the caution on Lap 105.
In fact, at the time, Briscoe was in and wondered aloud to Klausmeier over their team’s radio frequency what the caution was for.
"What was the caution for?"
"There was a piece of debris on the track in Turn 6."
"What?! It was there 20 laps ago."
Remember that Briscoe was temporarily knocked out of the playoffs by Dillon on the ensuing restart before coming back to overtake Larson in the standings on the second restart once he had fresher tires.
"So I was like, right behind, so Larson .. the wind off his car made it come off, and I was right behind him and I saw it come off like 20 laps before the caution," Briscoe said. "I was like, please don’t bring out a caution, because I knew we were in a really good spot.
"So, we come back the next lap and it had fallen to the corner out of the way, and I thought we were good, but sure enough it brought out the caution and they told me it’s because TV had just picked it up. I was pretty bummed because I knew guys would have fresh tires behind me, and man, what a roller coaster of a last five laps."
The pair of cautions resulting from the sign ultimately allowed Bell to work his way through the field and take one playoff spot away on points. Larson and Daniels could cite a questionable caution as the reason they were eliminated but the crew chief doesn’t view it that way.
"I haven’t seen it yet, so I don’t know enough to form an opinion," Daniels said. "All I know is that the points we were out by today is not a result of anything that happened today. Two points. I can find you two points 10 times over. I don’t know."
Cindric felt like he was 'driving like a bonehead' throughout the race and also had a chance to advance over those final two restarts. He gave himself a chance by staying out on old tires, which while necessary, resulting in him getting spun on the backstretch chicane on the final restart.
"Very, very crazy," Cindric said. “I would not recommend doing restarts with 30-lap older tires, compared to everybody else, that have less grip. It was just crazy, and being only a couple spots ahead (of the elimination cutline), I was fighting for everything I had. My driving standards were probably a little bit lower than I usually like keeping them, but [I was] just desperate at that point.
"Desperate times call for desperate measures. We were in a really great position before that first green-white-checkered. We had a few-spot margin and had a decent gap behind. The caution came out, and I felt like that sealed our fate in some ways. Even then, I was one point out and needed the spot and tried to get it. I didn’t get myself clear, and it was just a mess on the back chicane, so, overall, definitely some things I feel like we could have done better to execute today, but I definitely feel like we could have some more progress with the car. But, otherwise, great to be part of it and have a shot. We’re still coming to the final race; it’s just unfortunate we didn’t finish."
All told, it left Briscoe with the final spot and he was in borderline disbelief after everything that had transpired throughout this round.
Remember that he left last weekend at Talladega in a tie with Cindric for the final transfer, but lost that spot when William Byron won his appeal and got 25 points back taken away for the retaliatory action against Denny Hamlin at Texas Motor Speedway.
"I feel happier than I ever have when I’ve won a race before, truthfully," Briscoe said. "I know what this team is capable of, especially in this next round. Homestead, I feel like, is by far my best racetrack. Vegas, I’ve been able to have a lot of success there and Martinsville we were really fast.
"If we can get to Phoenix, we know we have a good car there, too. To have a one in eight chance to win a NASCAR championship is an unbelievable feeling and I think that’s why it feels even bigger than a win."