For the third straight race this season, a Nextel Cup event went beyond its scheduled distance on Sunday, as the race in Vegas produced another green-white-checkered finish. Certainly, no one would argue with the outcome"¦those last two laps were easily the most exciting of what had been a mediocre race at best to that point, as Jimmie Johnson initiated and ultimately won a thrilling duel to the finish with Matt Kenseth.
However, for the second straight week, the caution to set up the race to the finish came out of a judgment call from NASCAR’s race control. Two weeks ago at California, Scott Wimmer’s blown engine on the front straightaway caused the yellow flag to fly with just a handful of laps remaining; this week, it was debris from Kenny Wallace’s car that landed towards the end of the back straightaway that caused a late yellow flag to fly (this appeared to cause the final caution, NOT Tony Stewart’s flat tire).
Now, the point of a yellow flag, at least to me, is to protect the drivers from a hazard on the track that could ultimately interfere with the safety of not only themselves, but the other drivers and fans surrounding them. Certainly, in the case of a crash on the track or an incident where a car is stopped in the racing groove, unable to get to pit road, these types of situations are no-brainers to throw the yellow. But in the last two situations we’ve seen, it’s a much tougher situation to call"¦certainly, NASCAR doesn’t want to appear weak on safety. But is a blown engine out of the groove and a small piece of metal on the backstretch with four laps left really interfering with the safety of its drivers?
In both cases, the risk to drivers and fans alike was minimal. Certainly, you never want the risk for injury to be raised in ANY case. But if that risk is indeed minimal"¦where do you draw the line on throwing that flag?
The thing is, when you look long and hard enough at any 1.5-mile piece of pavement, you’re going to find debris on the race track. Tires get cut on the track all the time because of debris NASCAR never sees, unforeseen obstacles race drivers can’t predict. With all the beating and banging that goes on with race cars during a typical 400-mile race, it would be a bad thing NOT to end up with debris all over the place. It’s what comes of racing hard, side-by-side, for position.
With that said, certainly everything NASCAR does in the interests of safety should be applauded. No one wants to see anyone get hurt. But cautions in the last 10 laps can completely change the outcome of a race, and, if not called correctly, unfairly hand a win to someone that never would have had a chance at Victory Lane in the first place.
If you feel that piece of debris on the track wasn’t big enough to call out the dogs yesterday, well, then we’ve got a perfect example of yellow flag gone wrong. Sure, Jimmie Johnson beat Matt Kenseth fair and square to the finish line"¦but he would never have gotten his chance to be successful without that final caution for debris on the track. If that race goes green all the way, Kenseth wins easily, and Scott Riggs and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who got hit with pit road speed penalties while pitting for new tires for the green-white-checkered finish, would instead be credited with the Top 15 finishes they deserved for their strong runs all day.
Of course, there’s never a thing as too much safety when drivers are involved. But doesn’t every driver accept the fact that racing is inherently unsafe when they step in that race car every Sunday? And doesn’t bunching up 30-40 hungry drivers for a green-white-checkered finish put everyone in greater danger for a bad ending than a small piece of debris sitting on the back straightaway?
Debate on that question is certainly gaining steam"¦and with all the debris and oil cautions popping up the last couple of years that were never seen before in an era where NASCAR was a little more lax on safety, to say the least, it’s about time the sport’s officiating body began figuring out when and where such a line with safety needs to be drawn. For as we’ve all learned, the last thing a sport with fledgling credibility needs is weekly controversy surrounding a common but necessary officiating call.
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