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Watching the end of Sunday’s weird, wacky Kansas Cup race, I was as stunned as anyone to hear Jimmie Johnson say in his immediate post-race interview that he didn’t think Greg Biffle won the race. “He was clearly out of gas,” said Johnson. “I feel terrible for Greg. He’s been working so hard to win a race and he was up there in position to win it. But if you don’t maintain pace-car speed, you don’t hold your position. And 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. So in my opinion, where he coasted across the finish line relative to the other cars that could maintain pit-road speed is where he should finish.”
The issue Johnson raised turned into a full-blown controversy when his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon echoed these same concerns. “They don’t freeze the field. You have to maintain a reasonable pace,” he added. “And that is in NASCAR’s judgment if that was a reasonable pace. Everybody was slowing down trying to figure out what [Biffle] was doing. We were almost at a stop to run his pace, and the pace car was driving away… so we all just started going by him. In my opinion, he didn’t win that race. Clint Bowyer won the race.”
Bowyer had questions, too, forming a bit of a mini-alliance of sorts: “Jimmie and myself and Jeff Gordon and everybody – I don’t know exactly what the rule is, but I thought you had to at least be able to maintain a caution pace, and [Biffle] failed to do that.”
But, according to NASCAR Vice President Jim Hunter, “When the caution comes out like that, the leader of the race has to maintain a reasonable speed to the start-finish line. And in our opinion, in NASCAR’s opinion, Greg Biffle did that. And that’s really the end of the story.”
And of course, he’s right, because this is a case of NASCAR’s ball being in NASCAR’s court – frankly, it’s NASCAR everything.
In response to Mr. Hunter’s comment, Speed TV’s Bob Dillner, who was interviewing Hunter after the race, emphasized that the ruling was, as Hunter said, “NASCAR’s opinion.”
But in this situation, as in every one that requires a ruling, NASCAR’s “opinion” is ultimately the only one that matters.
Now, I don’t think Gordon, Johnson or Bowyer really expected NASCAR to pull Biffle out of Victory Lane and declare someone else the race winner. But by bringing up the issue, what the drivers were really requesting was a better explanation of the “finishing under caution” rule. And apparently a clarification is sorely needed, because everyone on the track and in the garage seems to have a different interpretation of the existing rule.
That is certainly a reasonable request, and a better understanding of how NASCAR makes this and other judgment calls would go a long way toward dispelling the ugly but persistent allegations about their overall legitimacy as a racing series.
But right now, that’s not going to happen. The bottom line is that there are judgment calls in every sport, whether it’s an umpire’s ball or strike ruling, a football referee’s line call, or a basketball ref’s decision on what constitutes a flagrant foul. The controversies that such calls elicit often make those sports maddening, but are a large part of what keeps us watching.
NASCAR is no different.
In baseball, the umpire is always right, and no amount of arguing is going to change that.
In NASCAR, the officials are always right, and with the exact same caveat as above; because ultimately, they’re the only one that can pick up their ball and go home.
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