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It was the worst possible scenario. By lap 67, all but six cars had pitted on a green flag run, then the dreaded yellow flag dropped. Unless you were one of the lucky fans whose driver had held off, the pit of your stomach dropped out. No… no… NO! Almost the entire field was a lap down!
We bit our lips. What? Why! Who caused it? Already we could taste blood, anxious to bestow a withering blow to race control for declaring some infinitesimal piece of debris the culprit for the untimely caution. But in the end, we were to be awarded not even that dubious piece of justice. The replay showed a tire rolling across pit road and onto the grass in the frontstretch, followed by a hapless gasman, Jimmy Watts, from the No. 47 team running to retrieve it. Of course, the caution was thrown… the idiotic maneuver of Watts could have resulted in tragic consequences either as he crossed pit road (while the field was still in the middle of green flag stops) or if the worst possible scenario occurred and a wrecking vehicle took him out in the grass.
Not only did NASCAR start turning blue while they yelled and sat Watts down for the remainder of the race, NASCAR Nation started looking for blood. Chat rooms across the nation demanded the JTG Daugherty car driven by Marcos Ambrose be parked, the fall guy for thoroughly messing up the race and ruining half the entrants’ chances at anything resembling a good finish.
How could that have happened? Why wasn’t something being done?
But wait just a minute. Turns out something was done after all. The No. 47 was sent to the end of the longest line on the restart for a pit box violation — a team member was not in contact with the outside tires. How else did the tire get loose, then? Turns out this had nothing to do with the very visible sprint of Mr. Watts. The tire changer simply lost control of his equipment.
As a result, that tire bolted across pit road and then continued to roll into the field of play. Even if Watts had not chased it, the caution would have waved. Hitting a tire at 180 mph is never good. And where would that “piece of equipment outside the pit box” have ended up if that happened? Bouncing off another passing car or potentially into the stands? NASCAR cannot permit something like that to occur; thus, they employ the nice people in race control to put out the caution as needed. Which — much to our chagrin — places this odd and very upsetting incident into the category of “weird stuff that ruins races.”
I know, the realization does little to soothe our ruffled feathers. I mean, what freakin’ moron would send a tire out into the track in the middle of a pit stop? But losing control of a Goodyear Eagle happens once almost every week. And how many times have you seen a wrench still attached to a car, or a catch can spinning down to the inside of the track? It happens all too often. In reality, it is an ignorant fan who does not recognize the fickle hand of fate’s influence in our sport.
I can guarantee that Jimmy Watts had a humbling and awkward interview inside the oval office after the race. His remorse was clear even as he spoke to the media. “I saw the tire going away,” he said. “And it was a reaction – the wrong one.”
His crew chief, Frank Kerr, will likely receive a fine for Watts’ lapse of judgment, and it is entirely feasible that NASCAR might suspend the gasman for a week or two. But there will not be even an official whisper of how that unfortunate tire, or the person that retrieved it, effected the outcome of the race. And there shouldn’t be.
Strange things can happen when the green flag flies. You never know what series of events may occur that will result in livening up four hours of “turn left and go fast.” Throughout racing history, cautions have been thrown at the most inopportune moments for loose wheels, missing windshields, random gas cans, small and large wildlife; and now, we can add crew members chasing equipment with no regard for their own safety to the list.
I wonder what wrench will be thrown into the race at Bristol in two weeks? Good or bad, I can’t wait to find out.