For a while on Sunday, it seemed like one particular instance of contact was going to be chalked up as inconsequential.
That all changed in Stage 3, though.
And now, it looks like NASCAR has another decision to make.
The late-race drama this weekend revolved around Kyle Larson and Ryan Preece. The two tangled twice on Bristol Motor Speedway’s slick dirt track on Sunday.
The first of the two times came in Stage 2, when Larson blocked a run Preece was making on him on the outside. Larson’s block nudged Preece into the wall, and the driver of the No. 41 car was clearly angered by that. He told his crew chief over the radio after the incident: “From now on, it’s game over.”
But after that incident, there was a long run without any conflict between Larson and Preece. The two drivers ran their own races. A little over an hour of real time passed. Feelings simmered. Or at least appeared to.
But then, when Larson spun out at the beginning of Stage 3 and was sent to the back of the field — which is where Preece was running thanks to an earlier single-car spin-out of his own — the two were together again.
And they entangled once more.
In the second incident, Larson was running on the outside with Preece on the inside. Preece appeared to initiate contact — and that contact sent Larson spinning into the wall, ending the No. 5 car’s day right then and there.
“I haven’t seen the contact from earlier in the race,” Larson told reporters just outside the infield care center at Bristol, after he’d added a “did not finish” result to what has largely been a successful 2023 season. “It was a tight, tight clear off of four. I mean, obviously I’m looking in my mirror, and I didn’t see that he was to my outside yet. And I don’t know if he got into the wall, but he had a pretty short temper obviously. He tried to crash me after that, and he was swerving at me under yellow.”
The driver of the No. 5 car added: “It had been an hour and a half or so since that happened. And it wasn’t my fault why he ended up spun out in the back, so I thought that he would chill out. But he obviously didn’t and ran me into the fence and ended our day. So it is what it is.”
Larson emphasized that he was surprised by the late-race move from Preece. The two don’t have a robust competitive racing history, and neither have had any issues with the other before.
But the anger was palpable Sunday nonetheless.
“Like I said, it had probably been an hour and a half I would have to guess, so I figured we could just be grown ups and get the (expletive) over it,” Larson said. “But I guess not.”
Preece recounted the two incidents in his own words postrace.
“When it comes to being run into the fence, every time you lift, if guys see you lifting when you’re at the right-rear corner, they’re just gonna keep running you up in the fence,” the driver of the No. 41 car said. “I think when I said ‘Game over,’ I meant just not gonna keep lifting and giving that respect of, ‘Hey, I’ll give you this room.’”
On the second collision that sent Larson spinning, Preece said he was “just trying to run the top.”
“You guys saw it,” he said. “He was running the top and making ground, and I tried to move up, and it’s really slick if you’re not in the right spot.”
There has been a lot of talk early this season about the blurry line between hard racing and racing that deserves a penalty. In fact, Denny Hamlin appealed a NASCAR decision just last week on the matter — one where NASCAR (and subsequently, the appeals panel) declared that Hamlin had raced in a way that violated the rule book.
On Sunday, similar questions were tossed on NASCAR’s proverbial desk once more: Did any on-track action at Bristol rise to “race manipulation” levels?
Should NASCAR take any action here?
For what it’s worth: Larson says no.
“Who’s to say he intentionally wrecked me?” Larson said of Preece. “Only he knows.”
Larson added: “I’m mostly mad I lost. I’m mostly made at myself. I shouldn’t have been there. I spun out. I shouldn’t be in here right now. But that’s just racing.”