On another beautiful Sunday afternoon in New England, the stands at New Hampshire International Speedway were packed with over 100,000 diehard NASCAR fans. With their devotion to the sport unquestioned, men and women of all ages brought their wallets as well as their loyalties to the track, swamping the souvenir stands all day long to buy everything from Ryan Newman pajama pants to Dale Earnhardt, Jr. beer mugs. Just staring out into the crowd, you could see hundreds of items bought in just a matter of a few minutes.
Yet, with all the different things on sale at the track, there was one item in the garage area that teams couldn't find enough of when it counted the most: gasoline.
For the second time in as many races, a Nextel Cup race was decided with a green-white-checkered finish, extending the race past its scheduled distance and, in doing so, robbing several drivers of good finishes by running them out of gas during those extra laps. Last week at Chicagoland, the late race tango between Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon made Tony Stewart an innocent victim, with the extra 3 laps that caution added to the race pumping every last drop of fuel out of the Home Depot Chevrolet. Heading towards a near certain Top 5 finish, Stewart instead found himself coasting his way home to 32nd, 100 points flushed down the toilet with the word "overtime" to thank. His ability to defend his championship, in light of a wreck in New Hampshire, is now in serious jeopardy.
Speaking of this weekend, several more NASCAR faithful were faced with more of the same disappointment. After Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers wrecked with a scant one and a half laps to go Sunday, the yellow flag was waved to clean up the mess, instituting another "overtime" period when several cars on the race track had gambled on strategy in which they would barely make it to lap 300 with the fuel they had in their tanks. Lap 301 and beyondâ€¦that would be anther story altogether. After Michael Waltrip and Travis Kvapil collided under that caution, the race found itself extended an extra eight laps - almost nine full miles. That caused teams like Reed Sorenson, Jeremy Mayfield, Denny Hamlin, and Elliott Sadler - all of whom had spent the majority of the final 100 laps in the Top 10 - to spend the final portion of their races running at half speed on the apron, their gas tanks dry and their chances for a good finish thrown up in smoke.
If you're keeping track at home, that's five teams, at least, who had their days ruined on the race track simply because the race went the extra mile - literally.
Of course, when the green-white-checkered finish was brought into Nextel Cup two years ago, this was exactly the disaster scenario envisioned by its critics. Trying to end a race under green, they claimed, would wreak havoc on teams trying to make an honest strategy call by making it to the end of the race on fuel. Certainly, as a crew chief, in today's day and age you have to accept the possibility that gambling on fuel mileage could backfire in the case of a late crash, as it has the last two weeks.
Is that fair?
I'm not so sure. The problem with the green-white-checkered rule when you're dealing with fuel is simple. As the caution laps pile up and the race continues on, the point at which NASCAR finishes cleaning the track and declares it ready for green flag racing is a judgment call.
Which brings us back to our friends on the track buying souvenirs. There is no negotiationâ€¦you buy things for the price listed on the trailer. Everything is black and whiteâ€¦there is no gray area. You pay the money listed on the T-Shirt, the diecast car, the bumper sticker, and you get that item. It's a cut and dry transactionâ€¦there is no room for interpretation.
Racing to the finish in the biggest racing series in the world should be the same way. NASCAR should never put itself in a position where a judgment call it makes could be interpreted as deciding the outcome of a race. With this weekend's final caution dragging on for eight laps, who's to say NASCAR didn't clean up a little slower and let the cars run one extra lap because they wanted Elliott Sadler to run out of fuel? Now, does that sound ridiculous? Of course. Do I think that happened? No. But has NASCAR opened themselves up to that type of conspiracy theory by the way they decide a green-white-checkered finish? Absolutely. If someone with the fan base of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was running up front and run out of gas due to the "overtime" period, you can bet this would have been a bigger issue.
How can this problem be solved? Simple. If a yellow flag happens late in the race that will cause a green-white-checkered finish, NASCAR can red flag the event with 3 laps to go until the track is clear, then run one more lap of caution before having their green-white-checkered. If there are less than three laps to go when the caution comes out, NASCAR can bring the field behind the pace car and red flag the event immediately. If they do that, no one can ever say the sport let a caution run a little longer than it should, to let a certain car run out of fuel or to put someone at a disadvantage. All judgments are taken out of the equation, all rules are consistent and fair.
Then again, fairness hasn't always been NASCAR's strong suit, not as long as those souvenirs keep disappearing off those trailers like hotcakes. Yet its overwhelming popularity should be the exact reason NASCAR should take steps to keep tweaking its rules to perfection; you always need to stay one step ahead of the game, or risk having the sport's momentum run itself out of gas. If they don't think that can happenâ€¦they need to ask some of their teams on pit road.
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