RICHMOND, Va. — Kyle Busch walked away from last weekend’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway fuming after he rear-ended another car, which was several laps down from the leader.
Navigating through lapped traffic is a major element of racing and a prevalent obstacle. However, Busch slamming into the back of Garrett Smithley in the No. 52 Ford, which finished the race 12 laps down, sparked a debate about the etiquette for drivers in Smithley’s position.
Martin Truex Jr. — Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate who won the first of 10 playoff races Sunday — said appropriate etiquette exists for drivers who are several laps off the lead. Generally, he said it’s get out of the way of those on the lead lap or who are one lap down and pushing to get back to the lead. But he also acknowledged it’s more complicated than that.
“Depending on the track, they should probably not be in the lane the leaders want to run,” Truex said Friday at Richmond Raceway, ahead of the Federated Auto Parts 400 on Saturday night.
“But that gets tricky at a place like Vegas, where you can basically run all over it. That’s where the tough part is. I think it’s a tough deal.”
Previously, Truex has slammed drivers in slower cars for being in the way or causing cautions, arguing some of them “shouldn’t even be out there, 20-some laps down, riding around.”
After getting two laps down early Sunday, Busch was playing catch-up when he ran into Smithley in the middle of the track and blamed the incident for ruining his building momentum. The No. 18 Toyota driver ended up finishing a lap down in 19th, while Smithley was 35th of 39 and a dozen laps behind.
Following a brief, surly press conference, Busch told NBC Sports what happened from his perspective and railed against Smithley for being in the way with a noticeably slower car. He said:
“I was told he was going to go high. I thought he was going to go high. He went middle because I thought he was going to go high and killed our day. I don’t know. Should have run fourth probably but instead 19th. We’re at the top echelon of motor sports, and we’ve got guys who have never won late model races running on the race track. It’s pathetic. They don’t know where to go. so What else do you do?”
The incident also served as a reminder of the substantial financial disparity between top and backmarker teams. Simplifying it, bigger teams with more money have better equipment and faster cars, plus top drivers and pit crew members.
“There’s such a speed gap between the front of the field and the back of the field,” Brad Keselowski told For The Win on Friday. “When you’re that much slower, you almost can’t have etiquette because the cars are coming at you so fast that nothing you do really matters.
“If you’re going on the freeway 70 miles an hour, and somebody merged in front of you at 10 miles an hour, and you ran into the back of them, and maybe they didn’t use their blinker, would using their blinker have changed anything? They’re just going too slow. There are some that make better moves than others, but not significantly so.”
Denny Hamlin, another teammate of Busch’s, said Friday that it’s “tough to really put any blame” on Smithley while also detailing the complexity of the issue. He said it didn’t look like the contact was anyone’s fault, adding: “I think Kyle just drove in there and guessed wrong on where he was going to be and ran into the back of him.”
XFINITY Series driver Justin Allgaier defended Smithley’s actions, and Cup Series driver Cory LaJoie and Tommy Joe Martins, a part-time XFINITY Series driver were among those to highlight the some of the differences among teams.
Like Keselowski at Team Penske, Busch and Truex are in elite equipment with Joe Gibbs Racing. All four Gibbs drivers made the 16-driver playoffs, and, with Hamlin and Erik Jones, they combine for 14 wins in 27 races so far this season.
Smithley competes with a significantly smaller team at Rick Ware Racing, and it was only his 11th start. He started the Vegas race 34th, expectedly driving a slower car than the top teams and playoff drivers.
“The guy that was out there was not only slow to begin with but wrecked,” added Truex, whose win Sunday automatically advances him to the second round of the playoffs.
“He had a tough night and his car was beat up and it was very slow, so I don’t know if we need to look at minimum speed maybe a little closer or if just maybe not run right through the middle of the race track. it depends, it’s different every week, it’s different every situation, it’s different for every car, there’s no really clear cut answer on how to make this easier on everybody.”