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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Follow the Rules!

This week’s exciting, but controversial races to the checkered flag in both the Daytona 500 and the Chevy Silverado HD 250 Craftsman Truck Series events have left me dumbfounded as how such a successful organization as NASCAR can all too often demonstrate such poor judgment. It seems to me that the organization masquerades as a top-notch professional sports entity, but under closer scrutiny seems to be controlled by a group of bumbling amateurs unable to establish clear and concise rules that fans and competitors can both understand and depend on.

I look at the whole scenario like this. As a kid, I, like many in my age group, wiled away the afternoons after school and weekends with impromptu pickup games of whatever sport was in season at the time. More likely than not, these free-for-alls would end in some combination of arguments, hard feelings and fistfights, but always in considerable confusion. I still remember the debates over such unclear rules as whether my line drive through Mr. Carroll’s garage window was a home run, if Ronny Fregosi’s touchdown could count when his mutt dog “Hoss” tripped the pass defender (my little sister), and whether Johnny Scarola’s shot was a three-pointer, because it looked like his toe was touching the crack on the driveway that served as the three-point line.

Why do I bring all this up? Well, NASCAR conducted themselves very much like us kids did this past weekend. However, we were kids! There were no written rules, no one paid half-a-week’s wages or more to watch us play, and in the end, we weren’t going to be judged by millions of fans by our inability to conduct ourselves professionally. But NASCAR will be.

The issue is one of integrity. Integrity doesn’t speak to whether an exciting race between Kevin Harvick and Mark Martin was preferable to a winner being determined by the freezing of the field under caution, as the rules dictate. Nor does it grant a special dispensation to the “yellow line is out of bounds” rule for Johnny Benson in Friday night’s Truck Series race, since he was almost blocked by another truck.

In professional sports, as NASCAR purports to be, rules are essential. Certainly, human judgment plays a role in most all sports; referees determine what is and isn’t holding or pass interference, umpires call balls and strikes and referees in basketball determine what is and isn’t traveling or charging. But those very legitimate professional sports do not reserve the right to disregard rules, regardless of what short-term gain may be realized by doing so. Just imagine NFL officials dismissing an offensive holding call on a play that resulted in the game-winning touchdown during the Super Bowl, then later justifying the decision by saying that calling the penalty had no impact on the players downfield and the resulting winning score, so why bother?

In essence, that is what happened in both scenarios I bring up; the failure of officials to throw a caution flag at the time that the wrecking commenced on the last lap of the 500, and officials abandoning the “yellow-line” rule to allow Benson’s pass of Travis Kvapil for second place in the truck race. In each instance, they simply attempted to justify their failure to adhere to their own rules… which is a load of baloney.

In the case of the Benson pass, the sanctioning body explained that there actually was a heretofore unknown rule. Ramsey Poston, NASCAR’s Managing Director of Communications, explained that Benson’s finish below the line is permissible if a driver racing to the finish can actually see the checkered flag. Oh really, Mr. Poston? How about the grass, or across that neat logo painted on the grass, or can they just race all the way across to pit road if they want? This new interpretation is going to clearly bite someone in the tailpipe down the road.

That’s not to take anything away from the finish; Benson’s pass was a thing of beauty, coming from high on the track, he bump-drafted eventual winner Jack Sprague into the lead with Kvapil racing hard for the win. Then, knowing his only chance to win was to dart to the bottom of the track and under the No. 6 Ford of Kvapil’s, he did just that, ending up second in an exciting three-truck photo finish. The only problem is, he was well below the yellow out-of-bounds line as he did so.

In the much talked about “no-caution until the leaders passed the finish line” conclusion to Great American Race, NASCAR officials made a conscious decision to not throw the flag immediately despite a whole lot of wrecking going on behind the leaders. Again, Mr. Poston, who apparently has become NASCAR’s “explain the unexplainable” go to guy, explained that the yellow didn’t come out until both Harvick and Martin had crossed the finish line. But when pressed as to why the caution wasn’t displayed when the wrecking first started, as most understand the rule to be, he explained that the cars “were already off the track and on the apron.” He did explain, though, that the yellow was thrown when Clint Bowyer‘s No. 07 slid through the grass and caught on fire.

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See how confusing things get when you don’t just stick to the rules, Mr. Poston? You just told us that the apron (that strip of pavement below the yellow line) was okay to race on coming to the checkered flag. But, of course, the whole explanation simply made no sense; it was only a futile attempt to justify ignoring the rule that calls for the yellow to be thrown when a wreck occurs.

Seems these NASCAR people are very confused and have no clue as to what is right. Competition Director Robin Pemberton exemplified just how clueless the sanctioning body is when he bemoaned, “We get criticized for everything we do, and this is no exception. If we throw the flag too early, people are mad that we kept Harvick from winning. If we throw it too late, people are mad that Martin didn’t win.”

Let me help you out, Robin, FOLLOW THE RULES! Don’t try to make good decisions on the spur of the moment. Just have good rules in place and adhere to them, and then maybe us media types might calm down!

When the rules have been applied properly in the past and drivers have been correctly penalized for passing below the yellow line, with the exception of the obligatory griping, the decision was at least justified in accordance with the rules. When last-lap cautions have been thrown, robbing fans of an exciting race to the finish (Talladega, 2005), fans might be disappointed, but they understand why things happened like they did.

Sure, we got two exciting finishes last weekend, but what happens next? Now, we have 35 more races, and the fans have no idea what the rules should be when their favorite drivers are coming to the checkered. Do we have to make new rules? Will we now revert to the old ones? The fans and the competitors alike need to know what exactly the rules are.

This is professional sports, not a pick-up game of stickball. Someone tell NASCAR.

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