NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Fan’s View: Last-Lap Caution Aside, Martinsville Delivered

Sunday’s Tums 500 at Martinsville Speedway by most measures was all that it could possibly be. Though I have often criticized the track for its one true racing groove that does not allow for true side-by-side racing and passing, the race was – at least by Martinsville standards – surprisingly clean and competitive.

Unusually long green-flag periods occurred on several occasions – even requiring teams to execute green-flag pit stops, a rarity for those that are familiar with the sport’s shortest track. In short, the racing was fast and competitive, just what the fans want and the sport needs plenty of.

I must confess that I had not attended a race at the southern Virginia half-mile in several years and, in fact, had never made the trek during the fall. Due to the fact that the track is not one of my favorites, combined with a shaky weather forecast for Sunday, my plans to make the race were tentative until late Saturday night. However, after rain on Saturday even the weather, with its clear skies and crisp, cool temperatures left nothing for fans to complain about.

And one more pleasant surprise, at least for those like myself that have never visited Martinsville and its surrounding areas during late October, was the changing of the seasons and the vast array of colors that the Fall season produces as one looks towards the surrounding hills is truly breathtaking.

For me, even though I never was a fan of Martinsville Speedway, Sunday was pretty much as perfect of a race day as I have experienced for 500 laps.

Unfortunately, the event lasted 501 laps.

It’s that last lap when NASCAR decided to use its discretionary decision making authority to not throw the caution and slow the entire, closely bunched field of racecars coming through turn 4 as John Andretti was parked crossways on the track trying to restart his wrecked No. 34 Chevrolet.

NASCAR continues to attempt to sell the story that they are trying to balance the safety of its drivers and at the same time give race fans their moneys-worth by letting the race play out as much as possible. Funny thing is, I doubt that many folks in the grandstands were watching how the race played out so much as whether Andretti – who at one point moved his car further up the track into the preferred lanes as cars come off turn 4 – would be T-boned.

This latest incident comes only a little more than a month after a similar set of circumstances unfolded at New Hampshire when AJ Allmendinger was the “sitting duck” as the pack rounded turn 4 led by race leader and eventual winner Mark Martin in a hotly-contested run to the checkered flag with Denny Hamlin and Juan Pablo Montoya in pursuit. Like Sunday, the caution was shown dangerously late and in that instant Allmendinger was not hit.

So what has happened to the notion that it is prudent to throw the yellow flag in a judicious manner when a car is stranded in the middle of the racetrack and freeze the field in the name of safety? The “better safe than sorry” approach… if you will.

The only possible answer that I am able to come up with is that in NASCAR’s judgment, safety is not as great a priority to them on the last lap as it is at other junctures of the event. At least that is the only possible explanation for NASCAR’s willingness to roll the dice with the well-being of a driver sitting helplessly in the middle of the track, as was the case Sunday.

That NASCAR continues to believe that they can predict with any amount of certainty that a pack of 32 cars, hell-bent to improve their positions with the finish line in sight, are all able to process the knowledge that there is a car wrecked in front of them may or may not need to be cautious is asking way too much. There needs to be, for the safety of all, a definitive reaction to what their eyes and what their spotters are telling them.

I have resisted as long as I can using the “C word,” but yes… NASCAR needs to be CONSISTENT in how they call such situations.

Drivers need to know what is expected of them. Martin admitted to momentarily lifting when he saw Allmendinger wounded car sitting on the track before realizing that a yellow was not thrown as he raced for the finish at Loudon. You can bet there were others at Loundon and Sunday at Martinsville as well. That in itself is a sure recipe for further wrecking within the pack as some continue to race while others hesitate.

Curiously, Andretti seems comfortable with NASCAR’s last-minute throwing of the yellow. “It wasn’t a bad call,” Andretti said. “To me, I wasn’t in a great position, but I wasn’t in an overly dangerous position. NASCAR focuses on the race itself, and they want to see the winner come across the finish line.

“It’s probably the call I would’ve made. I would’ve gotten out of the way if I could’ve. But I had a couple of issues. The car was too damaged.”

Sunday’s runner-up Jimmie Johnson did not outright slam the sanctioning body for its decision to let the race play out as long as possible, “But it makes me a little nervous as I’m charging into the start/finish line and there’s a car sitting there,” he said. “I wish it would be thrown a little bit earlier for safety reasons. Might as well be on the safe side.”

Exactly. Why not err on the side of safety?

NASCAR implemented a truly significant change in its race procedures in 2003 when it chose to stop the routine practice of the field racing one another back to the start/finish line. A decision that was prompted by a Dale Jarrett spin at Loudon that was almost a carbon copy of the situation that Allmendinger, and now Andretti have found themselves in.

The practice of quickly slowing the field or freezing the field at the time that the caution is waved properly addressed what was a legitimate concern for the safety of drivers. Now it only needs to be used consistently for the purpose it was intended.

NASCAR’s desire to give the fans a thrilling finishing is to be commended. However, that could be accomplished simply by allowing for at least one more green/white/checkered restart – when needed.

Still, from a fan in the stands view… Martinsville’s fall festival was a great show.

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