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Voices from the Heartland: NASCAR Deems That AJ Allmendinger is ‘Expendable’

A lot has been said this past week about the timing of the last caution flag that flew on the closing lap of last Sunday’s race. The controversy started as AJ Allmendinger’s No. 44 spun on the frontstretch during the white-flag lap. Meanwhile, Mark Martin and Juan Pablo Montoya continued to battle for the lead as Allmendinger sat dead in the water in the middle of the track. It wasn’t until the field was in the middle of turns 3 and 4 that NASCAR finally gave up hope that AJ could refire his car and they finally threw the caution. After all, NASCAR is all about safety, right? Wrong!

“We were waiting to see if [Allmendinger] could get going and get out of the way,” said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s vice president of competition, as he explained NASCAR’s hesitation. “You wait as long as you can to try to not affect the outcome of a race. We don’t like the race to end under caution.”

Even after the caution flew, effectively freezing the field, the racing didn’t stop.

“Somebody came up there and ran into the back of me,” said Martin as he remembered a Daytona 500 victory that slipped away all because he followed the rules. “And of course I went back to accelerating. I knew the race was supposed to be over, but I’ve done lots of stupid stuff, and I didn’t want to lose this race.”

Ironically, it was this very race, at this very track and an incident that involved Dale Jarrett that prompted NASCAR to make a major rule change in the name of ‘safety’ back in 2003. In case you don’t remember, here’s how it went down.

Jarrett wrecked coming out of turn 4 and was left sitting in the middle of the track. The yellow immediately flew, but guess what? That was back in the days when there was still the ‘gentleman’s agreement’ and racing back to the line under yellow was allowed. Unfortunately, there were no ‘gentlemen’ on the track that day and as the leaders came back to the line, Jarrett narrowly missed become the hood ornament of the leader’s car. NASCAR meanwhile, still stinging from the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. barely two years before (all because they were loath to spend money on existing safety technology, namely SAFER barriers), decided that something must be done to prevent the possible death of another of the sport’s superstars and thus the “Lucky Dog” rule was born.

In fact, back then (2003), NASCAR was quite adamant that safety was their number one priority.

“We have monitored and continually discussed internally the situation regarding racing back to the yellow throughout the season, and have reached the conclusion that it is time for us to take this step,” NASCAR President Mike Helton said. “We will eliminate the practice completely and no longer depend on the gentlemen’s agreement by the drivers in an effort to further ensure the safety of the competitors. We needed to find a better way to do it rather than racing back to the yellow, and the new procedures we are putting in place are the first step in the process.”

A few days after Helton’s statements, a Q&A session was held to further explain the new rules and NASCAR’s position. Series Competition Director, John Darby was one of the main speakers. One of the questions asked was whether the new rule was a direct result of the incident involving Jarrett in the (then) No. 88 car.

“I think it’s not a secret that we’ve been discussing options to racing back to the caution flag for probably a year, if not more. We wanted to continue and have all the faith in the drivers that they could still manage the gentlemen’s agreement properly. The situation last week at New Hampshire was probably one of the largest reasons why we knew we had to react,” said Darby.

Another question asked back then, one that is more apropos to last Sunday’s race was; Has NASCAR considered letting the drivers race back to the line under yellow on the last lap of a race?

“We can’t be guaranteed that the same situation that could happen on lap 15 won’t be there on the last lap. So as far as the caution being displayed and the cars slowing down and maintaining positions, it’s our feeling right now that we need to apply that to every lap of the race,” said Darby.

Here we are, six years later almost to the day, and what do we have? You got a car dead on the frontstretch of the last lap in the race. You got NASCAR waiting until the field is entering turn 4 to throw the yellow and when they do, you got the leaders refusing to lift or slow because of NASCAR’s past ‘judgment’ calls! So much for NASCAR’s “concern” for safety!

Of course, even back in 2003, Mike Helton left NASCAR with an “out”, as any good spin doctor would.

“We will monitor and evaluate the new procedures and fine-tune them if needed as we move forward.”

I guess we’ve seen their “evaluation and fine tuning.” In their eyes, a No. 44 (Allmendinger) is only HALF of a No. 88 (Jarrett) and therefore expendable.

Stay off the wall,

Jeff Meyer

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