Weird. Just, weird.
I spent the latter part of Sunday night trying to come up with better words to describe the most recent 400-mile race at Kansas Speedway; however, no amount of journalistic prose could excuse the feelings that – well, something strange just happened to the Nextel Cup Series this weekend.
Something I fear proved to be NASCAR’s latest mistake.
At first glance, it would seem that the sport was simply Mother Nature’s victim once again, especially on a Kansas prairie known for ferocious thunderstorms. As the race began under threatening skies, the first bout with weather wasn’t so bad – just 12 laps in, a small shower pushed through that caused the race to be red-flagged for just over 45 minutes Sunday. But the second, expanded weather delay that put a black cloud over several aspects of the race itself. A severe rainstorm, weather hit with such ferocity around lap 145 that the stands emptied completely, water was flying through the air sideways, and even cameramen were being pulled off the roof for fear of being struck by lightning.
As disastrous weather proved imminent, pit strategy was pushed to the forefront, eerily similar to a Pocono race in June that saw Jeff Gordon roll the dice on a gas-mileage gamble en route to his fourth victory of the season. Tony Stewart‘s crew chief Greg Zipadelli proved he sat back and learned from that, setting up a situation this Sunday that could have easily worked out the same way. By copycatting Gordon’s old strategy – staying out on track while all other leaders pitted – the No. 20 team had the car out front when the rains came in earnest, forcing the event to be stopped. Once the skies started opening, the window of opportunity to run the full race started closing, creating a scenario that could have easily handed Stewart the winning trophy for the second straight year.
Sadly, that’s where the 2005 Cup champ’s luck ran out – and the Twilight Zone began. After nearly three hours of red-flag activity on the day, NASCAR decided to force the race to go back green at about 7:00 ET, even though they knew there wasn’t sufficient time left to complete all 400 miles. Standing firm on their pledge to deliver the fans as much of the race as possible when circumstances permit, it was an intriguing decision by the powers that be that offered up a variety of opinions, depending on whom you asked.
“I think that was an awesome call,” said Gordon as the sun set behind him. Of course, he had little reason to complain; the extra laps gave him a chance to rally from 30th all the way to fifth. “I think NASCAR recognized what is going on in the Chase and what a disaster that was going to be (to not finish). I think that as long as there is daylight, they are going to race. I am sure there are some guys that disagree with that, but because of the wreck and some of the things that happened, from hey, from where I was sitting, there was only one call and that was to go back racing. Certainly, we are glad that they did.”
Let’s just say not everyone agreed with that assessment. The biggest problem with the “restarted race” appeared to be the confusion over the final distance. Instead of running a timed affair, the sanctioning body chose to try and work with an ending lap number, giving teams an adequate assessment of exactly how much racing would be left.
Turns out that number was a continual work in progress. It changed three times, from lap 225 to lap 210 to lap 210 with no green-white-checkered finish, leaving crew chiefs frustrated and unsure exactly how the race would play out. To be honest, the whole thing reminded me of when I would play video games with my younger brother when I was a kid. Whenever I lost, I couldn’t swallow my pride and just admit defeat, instead, I just kept making up loopholes in the rules so I could say I won.
That same type of behavior seemed to emanate right from the NASCAR tower, as the decision-making brass appeared to make rules as they went along, mistake after mistake piling up as both darkness and on-track incidents caused gross misjudgments of time.
“Well, it’s hard because you don’t know (certain things),” NASCAR Vice President Robin Pemberton spouted out during an interview from the ESPN TV booth during the rain delay.
Except NASCAR did. They knew the time the sun set in the west at Kansas, and they also knew that track drying left them with less than an hour of green-flag racing – not nearly enough to finish the final 120 laps or so of the scheduled racing distance. That seems to me the situation left them with two options: recognizing the importance of a playoff race and pledging to finish the full distance on Monday, or remaining consistent and calling the race due to weather, similar to what they do during the regular season.
In what’s been a tough season for the officiating body, they did neither, and no one understood why. To make matters worse, a nasty wreck as the race restarted – again, no fault of NASCAR officials but ugly nonetheless – claimed three Chase contenders and ruined Stewart’s day. A fender rub caused while attempting to miss that wreck led to a flat tire after a poor decision by Zipadelli to keep the car out on the track; the No. 20 wound up in the wall shortly thereafter, leaving a frustrated Stewart leaving the track without comment.
“I think whenever the rain ran its course, it really had things jumbled up for a while there,” explained Jimmie Johnson afterwards. “But I think the craziness on track came when we went back to green and you had a lot of guys on the tail end of the lead lap. And then we had such a small window of time that everybody just started driving really aggressively.”
That theory holds water; at the time of the major storm, Stewart, Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick were the only Chasers remaining in the top 10. Others who had dominated the race – Gordon and Kurt Busch among them – were trapped a lap down, standing to lose everything on the heels of pit stops made before the rain. Such a jumbled finishing order as a possible outcome likely forced NASCAR’s hand to try and rectify things.
It’s just too bad they didn’t know how to do so. But alas, the Twilight Zone performance showed no signs of stopping anytime soon.
The race continued on, with a revitalized Greg Biffle establishing himself as a surprise contender up front. With the lap count dwindling, so was the fuel in Biffle’s tank, and he stood to be the biggest loser once the caution came out for Juan Pablo Montoya‘s scrape with the outside wall on lap 206. Surely, a GWC finish would force Biffle to run out of gas; he was already projected to run out around lap 210.
Right behind him, hometown boy Bowyer prepped for a high-energy finish. Up to second, he felt assured of a shot at a win; except, lo and behold, the Twilight Zone came up again. Apparently, darkness “prevented” a GWC finish, causing the powers that be to run the advertised distance – and nothing more.
A few drivers defended NASCAR’s call.
“I had to run with my visor up those last few laps,” said fourth-place finisher Casey Mears. “I had a tinted visor on. I couldn’t see at all that last 5-10 laps, I just had to turn my visor up and then I could see pretty good. Obviously, it got dark quick, so it definitely was the way to call the race.”
“When they said they were going to call it, I thought, wow,” added Biffle in the post-race press conference. “But after I drove back by there (the back straightaway), there’s all that stuff (left from Montoya’s car) and we’re still five, 10 minutes away from being able to go green again.”
Of course, that’s the type of situation that reinforces the idea of why time worked so much better than distance. You can’t stop that type of yellow-flag stuff from happening any more than you can the sun from setting in the West – and if teams had a time to adhere to, they’d actually have a way to strategize instead of focusing on a lap count that changed more often than the stock market fluctuates between 9:00 and 9:01.
Of course, as if all that weren’t enough, Biffle clearly ran out of gas heading to the finish line. Slowing under the yellow, he crossed at virtually a crawl – causing the cars of Bowyer and Johnson to go by him, a move that actually led to the unprecedented announcement of Biffle declared the winner even though Bowyer’s car had crossed the line far ahead of him.
“I was trying to save enough fuel to do burnouts and drive it to Victory Lane,” began an explanation by the Biff that seemed as nonsensical as it was implausible. “So, I was steering with my knee and undoing my helmet, taking my seatbelts off and all of that and coasting down on the apron, and figured I was far enough along that I didn’t have to – I had to grab ahold of the steering wheel and had all of my stuff unbuttoned, start back up or let the clutch out, drive another 50 feet and then shut it all back of again.”
“So, I didn’t really feel like it was necessary (crossing the finish line first). The race was over, the caution was out, we were declared the winner, all we had to do was come back around and cross the stripe. So, that’s that. I could’ve passed the pace car, if you want. I can go start the car up and do some burnouts in the garage over here, do some donuts if that’ll make everybody feel better about it. I don’t know what to say.”
The rest of his opposition felt a little differently; after all, they knew that the number one rule of racing since the dawn of time was that he who takes the checkered flag first is the race winner – as long as he didn’t cheat. But in this case, there was the rare circumstance that the guy behind the one who crossed the line first broke the rules – yet, he’s still going to make out with a win anyway.
“I feel terrible for Greg [Biffle],” He’s been working so hard to win a race and he was up there in position to win it,” said Johnson of the strange ending. “But if you don’t maintain pace car speed, you don’t hold your position.”
“It was clear to everyone that he couldn’t do it. If he could have, he would have stayed on the bumper of the pace car to the finish line.”
Surprisingly, NASCAR chose to immediately reaffirm Biffle as the winner, giving hometown boy Bowyer the short end of the stick. To his credit, the New Hampshire winner took his defeat in stride; after all, there was so much weirdness going on it was impossible to pin defeat on one shining moment.
“I don’t know, but it didn’t look right,” questioned Bowyer. “I don’t know what the rule is.”
“It is just weird, very weird.”
You’re preaching to the choir, Clint.
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