Just when you thought this NASCAR season was off to a tame start, Daniel Suarez and Michael McDowell spent part of their afternoon fighting on pit road.
On a Friday! During qualifying!
Have you ever seen a fight during qualifying before?
“I did today!” Martin Truex Jr. said. “Awesome!”
Drivers stopped in their tracks and stared at the screens around ISM Raceway while the replay was shown again and again: The images of Suarez walking with purpose and stepping over the pit road wall, McDowell issuing the first strike, Suarez getting the upper hand and slamming McDowell to the ground, crew chief Drew Blickensderfer shoving Suarez onto the hood — hand on the driver’s neck — and Suarez giving him a choke right back as McDowell pulled on his foe’s leg.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) March 8, 2019
“At some point I’ve always wanted to bodyslam somebody,” Kevin Harvick said. “I don’t know what the circumstances were, but it sounded exciting.”
So what happened? Well, it all started with the No. 90 Xfinity Series car driven by Ronnie Bassett Jr.
Bassett’s engine blew at the end of Xfinity practice — which immediately preceded qualifying — and the clean-up job left all sorts of residue on the track.
“One of the ARCA cars blew up at the end of practice and oiled it all down, so nobody wanted to get on the track too soon,” Brad Keselowski said.
That meant most of the cars waited until the very end to roll out — which in turn caused there to be far too much traffic at once on a 1-mile track and prevented some drivers from getting a clean lap.
“When you have a bunch of knucklehead drivers sit out there and wait with four minutes left and 30 cars still haven’t run, that’s what you have,” David Ragan said.
McDowell and Suarez rolled off at the same time, and Suarez strongly felt McDowell impeded his laps — not just once, but twice. So on their way back to pit road, Suarez got in McDowell’s way as retaliation. (McDowell accused Suarez of trying to wreck him, which Suarez didn’t deny.)
“When you mess up somebody’s lap, I understand they’re frustrated,” McDowell said. “But when you try to hurt somebody and damage hundreds of thousands of dollars of race cars, that’s taking it to a whole other level.”
Suarez said he was mad about McDowell costing him a good starting spot, but even more upset about losing pit stall selection on a difficult pit road (stalls are chosen in order of how cars qualified).
He called the situation a lack of respect and said he wouldn’t stand for it.
“I’m the kind of driver that I’m going to give a lot of respect to you, always, if you give me respect back,” Suarez said. “If you don’t give me respect, I’m going to go kick your ass.”
Asked about his takedown of a taller driver (McDowell is listed as having five inches on Suarez), the ultra-athletic Suarez said, “I don’t care how big he is.”
He added: “I’m a very nice guy. I get along well with anyone. But if you play that way, I’m going to react that way.”
McDowell, for his part, said the entire thing was a one-off confrontation in the heat of the moment and had nothing to do with history or bad blood between them.
Both men were upset with the other, and they simply dealt with it.
“Don’t read too much into it,” McDowell said. “It’s emotions, man. It’s just the way it is.”
UPDATE (Saturday morning): McDowell and Suarez met with NASCAR in the series hauler on Saturday morning before practice, where they reassured officials they won’t set out to wreck each other in Sunday’s race.
Suarez said it was easy for him to make that pledge because it’s not his style to crash other drivers.
“I’m not the kind of guy who is going to wreck someone like that,” Suarez said. “I’m not going to use my car as a weapon. If someone has a problem with me, I prefer to do it in person. That’s exactly what I did (Friday).”
But McDowell’s entire reason for being upset was the “dangerous” move Suarez made to interfere with the No. 34 car’s lap as retaliation. McDowell said he expected Suarez to mess up the lap — it’s “protocol” to do so if the other driver does it first, McDowell said — but “what he did was pretty risky for both of us.”
A video shown on FS1 Saturday morning had McDowell’s car coming at full speed while Suarez makes a move back up the track at slow speed, which caused McDowell to jump on the brakes and go high, nearly hitting the wall.
McDowell said the drivers also spoke privately in the NASCAR hauler following their meeting with officials.
“I just wanted to have a real conversation with him without all the people around to understand where we’re coming from,” McDowell said. “You’re in this sport a long time and you’re surrounded by people, and you have the opportunity to have good and bad relationships. You can determine that by how you handle conflict. So I just wanted to see where he was at.”