MADISON, Ill. – Chase Elliott’s suspension from Sunday’s Enjoy Illinois 300 sparked online debate of NASCAR’s waiver policy for their full-time drivers.
While drivers saw no quarrel with the current systems set in place by the sanctioning body, it was clear that no driver wanted to see their season or championship hopes evaporate from things out of their control.
One example from this season already comes from the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, where Corey Heim missed Saturday’s Toyota 200 due to an undisclosed illness. With a win earlier this year at Martinsville Speedway, he is not only locked into the Playoffs for the Truck series but also holds the 15-point bonus being the current championship leader. By missing a race, a driver can become ineligible for the Playoffs, regardless of past wins or championship standings after the regular season in their respective series.
The 2023 NASCAR season has already seen seven waiver requests, more than any year in the past by nearly double. Across the top three national touring series, the variety of reasons has been the most diverse, including age restrictions, off-track injuries, injuries from other forms of racing, illnesses and suspensions. None have been denied this year as of the World Wide Technology Raceway weekend.
“I guess we don’t really need the waiver system,” said Daytona 500 champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. “You should just let everybody race for a championship. I’ve been fine with everything they’ve done. They have a system, and if there’s a situation where they don’t want to give a waiver, then we look at it then. But everything is pretty warranted for what they’ve done. I know that if I was in some of those positions, I would definitely want one as well.
“Hopefully I don’t have to be asking for one anytime soon.”
Already six drivers have had to ask for one, including Elliott who is on his second waiver this year. The first was when NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver was out for six races after a leg injury from a snowboarding accident in Colorado. Last weekend during the Coca-Cola 600, a right-rear hook on Denny Hamlin forced NASCAR to suspend Elliott for one race. His absence from Gateway required a waiver application from him to remain Playoff eligible.
At this time, drivers don’t seem to mind the excessive waivers being requested and granted.
“I think it’s ridiculous that you can run 34 of the 36 races and not be eligible because of getting hurt or getting sick, or in Chase (Elliott) or Bubba (Wallace’s) case last year with the penalty,” Michael McDowell sharing his thoughts on the situation. “I don’t think that was the intention of the waiver. The intention was for somebody only running 10 races to not get into the Playoffs. That wasn’t to hold somebody accountable to run all 36 races.
“If you look at past championships even before the Playoff format, there’s guys that got race-hurt or got out hurt. I don’t think your championship or year should be over because of one incident, so I think they’re doing it right by the waiver. I don’t think they’re being lenient with it, but I think the terminology probably should be changed and some of the language around it.”
That terminology is more focused around how the procedure moves forward once a waiver request gets into the hands of NASCAR. During Saturday’s press conferences, no driver knew what that looked like.
“I just question who is part of that board, or if it’s a single person,” stated Justin Haley. “Where do the waivers come from?”
According to NASCAR, the waivers are received and examined by a team similar to those that evaluate and administer mid-week penalties.
Again, as echoed by most other drivers, Todd Gilliland has no concerns with the waiver system. In 2018, he was forced to request a waiver because of his age. NASCAR’s policy is to be 18 or older to race on tracks longer than one mile. That circumstance ultimately had no effect on the Truck Playoffs, but for the first seven years of the waiver guidelines, roughly half of them have had implications of their respective series’ Playoff bid.
“As somebody who got a waiver in 2018 to run for the Truck championship, I didn’t end up making the Playoffs but for something like that, I wonder at times,” explained Gilliland. “I had to miss the first four races because of my age. I didn’t get hurt or get sick; I just wasn’t allowed for those races. To me, it’s different when you see someone get suspended versus actual sickness. Is it better Playoff-eligible and then they have to make a claim that you’re not? I think there’s a lot of ways to look at it, but you want as many guys Playoff-eligible as you can. Even if you are eligible doesn’t mean you’ll make the Playoffs.
“If Chase Elliott comes back and wins a race, you certainly want him in the Playoffs.”
That may be the main takeaway with all of this. Simply because you are eligible for the Playoffs doesn’t mean you will make it into the postseason. At this point, all drivers ask for is consistency and so far, two-time Cup champion Joey Logano sees exactly that.
“Each situation is probably different,” said Logano. “I mean, getting hurt inside a race car, getting hurt outside a race car, in a Cup car or a different kind of car, penalties… it’s pretty tricky. I think each case is different, I know that. I know that every time an example is set, that’s what (NASCAR) has to stick with.
“They know if you get hurt outside of a race car, you still have a chance of making the Playoffs. If there’s a penalty, your Playoff eligibility is still there. We don’t know the rule until a call is made. A call has been made a few different times now so we all know what the rule is now.”
Harrison Burton equated it to stick and ball sports, where a player can be injured but still participate in the Playoffs if their team makes the cut.
“For NASCAR, you want your stars to be in the Playoffs, and you want the people that belong in the Playoffs in the Playoffs,” Burton elaborated. “I tend to keep my head out of conversations about what I think about rules, because as a young guy that’s what you tend to do. As I’m getting into my second year, I’m starting to notice I’m more opinionated. I don’t really have a strong opinion on this one though. Not to be a political answer, but I’ve heard that people are frustrated with it on social media. But I haven’t had any issues with it. I think it’s important for us to have the fastest guys in the Playoffs, and the guys that can win a championship.
“I watch NFL all the time, so that’s what I relate our sport to because it’s my other sport I really like to watch. If you have a starting quarterback get hurt, he can come back for the Playoffs and still get in. If you qualify for (the Playoffs) points-wise, I think why not? I don’t know what the other guys think, but not really strongly opinionated.”
“I think it’s case by case,” chimed Ross Chastain. “They’re doing a great job of figuring it out as they go. They want to reward the people that are here every week, and not let unforeseen circumstances take us out of ultimately fighting for a championship.”
The one common denominator across the field was simply stated by current championship leader Chastain.
“I don’t know (what the procedure is) and I hope I never have to find out.”