NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: Green-White-Checkered Continues to Fly in the Face of Tradition

The other day I was looking at some novelty t-shirts online and happened across one that would appeal to the extremist at heart. It read, “When All Else Fails – Vote From The Rooftops,” replete with the image of a rifle topped with a scope and bi-pod. As I watched the green-white-checkered finish of the Stater Brothers 300 shortly after, that message came to mind as I thought back to how we got to these last-lap do-over racing shenanigans in the first place.

This relatively new idea to the Sprint Cup and Nationwide series, that originated as a way to generate interest in the new rough and tumble Truck Series during the mid-1990s was not born from determining a race winner solely through competition. It was precipitated by the riotous outburst from some fans along the superstretch at Daytona following the end of the 2002 Pepsi 400.

Michael Waltrip had dominated the event that day, leading 99 of 160 laps. However, with three laps to go, a wreck involving Ryan Newman, Dave Blaney and Jeff Green occurred, forcing the race to finish under the yellow flag. Fans responded by littering the track with souvenir programs and seat cushions, much to the dismay of NASCAR – though Michael probably thought it looked pretty; his own personal ticker-tape parade in honor of his second career victory.

To help prevent such a display from happening again, NASCAR attempted to outline some rules for the end of a race should a caution fly near its conclusion in 2003. A formula based on the size of the track and number of laps run would determine the cutoff point for using the red flag to clear the track of any disabled cars or debris should there be a late-race incident, in an effort to see that the race finished under green flag conditions. That seemed like a fair idea – until the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega in 2004, when the race was paused just as Dale Earnhardt Jr. was in the process of passing leader Jeff Gordon with four laps remaining.

That wouldn’t be such a big deal today, but back then the red flag cut-lap just happened to be the lap before the caution flew.

As with the situation in Daytona two years earlier, the fans responded by raining down a volley of Budweiser cans, coolers, small children and just about anything else not bolted in place. And in response to the actions of a certain segment of spectators “voting from the rooftops,” NASCAR instituted the GWC rule that is now in all of its three major touring series. Having been with us now for five years, has it had the desired effect of promoting better racing or a more honest result?

The results have been mixed.

The 2007 Daytona 500 finish is probably the most egregious example. Having led from lap 176-200, Mark Martin was looking to bring home his first Daytona 500 victory, his first race of a part-time schedule with a new team. A GWC restart saw him take the white flag while in the lead, but was ultimately edged out at the finish line by Kevin Harvick.

Rewind the tape two weeks ago to the 2010 Daytona 500.

Clint Bowyer was leading up through lap 198 of 200 until a three-car accident triggered the first of two GWC attempts. The first saw him get passed by Greg Biffle, and the second saw his teammate Harvick overtaken with two circuits remaining by Jamie McMurray for the win.

The GWC giveth… and it taketh away.

The new multiple restart rule is another change for 2010, a year where NASCAR has repeatedly stressed the need to return to its roots, though extending races upwards of 20 miles past their advertised distance would seem to run contrary to that notion. While “taking the gloves off” worked for the most part at Daytona as far as bump drafting and roughhousing was concerned, the race-until-we-get-it-right restart rule drew differing opinions from drivers. Under the new rules, the leader must take the white flag before the race can be considered official and finish under caution – and they get three cracks at it, rather than just one as in years prior.

How does this new rule sit with the drivers?

“They could do 10 green-white-checkereds and we’re still not going to make it to the checkered,” said Gordon following this year’s Budweiser Shootout at Daytona. “It needs to be one lap and then the finish. That’d be my best throw at it. With fuel-mileage issues, we’re cutting it close anyway. You’re just setting up for another wreck.”

Gordon’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Martin, questioned the effect the GWC may have on the legitimacy of a race.

“It could be a little bit like a circus out there.”

It’s hard to fault either drivers’ logic. It’s one thing to legitimately pass another driver for a win under these circumstances, but how long is it going to be until somebody runs out of fuel tooling around laps past the advertised distance, trying to reset the field and clean the track up? What happens if after the second restart attempt, the leader runs over some debris from the most recent disaster and gets a flat tire that costs him a win?

Imagine if this were to happen at Talladega, and something else that is green and white was leading the pack on the third of three restart attempts only to have something go awry.

If the past is any indication, they would “vote from the rooftops” once again, flinging cans, bottles, the elderly and the track PA speakers onto the racing surface. It seems that in this country, be it in the public arena or motorsports, the squeaky wheel certainly gets the grease, and the vocal minority can apparently effect change simply by throwing stuff onto the track.

The most recent GWC finish, at the conclusion of the Stater Brothers 300 at California, was exciting, but one that happened only after a car running mid-pack brought out the final yellow – following an innocuous spin to the apron of the track. So, after dominating the event and leading 130 of the 150 scheduled laps as advertised, Joey Logano was felled by Biffle’s bumper entering turn 1 on the restart, and ultimately Brad Keselowski’s Penske Dodge Charger, coming to the finish line – all of this clearing the way for his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch to claim the win.

It was the antithesis of any prior race at Yawntana, Caliborin’ya, and a bit of a kick in the pants from the previous two hours of strung-out parading that made Danica Patrick’s speeding tickets that much more compelling.

While it may have “created” some excitement, you can forgive Logano if he was less than enthused about manufacturing a close finish for a race that he had thoroughly dominated – and won if you go by the title name of the event.

We are all familiar with the “put on a good show for the fans” mantra – as it has become the calling card of NASCAR for the last decade or so. That’s all fine and good, but when it comes at the expense of a race that was lead to its advertised completion, it almost cheapens the win when it purports a series of events such as those that took place at Auto Club Speedway last Saturday.

In comparison, McMurray’s Daytona 500 win was impressive and well received in part because of his humility and humble reaction in victory lane. It was also because the race had lasted nearly seven hours, with two restarts that were necessitated by a pair of three-car wrecks and numbing those watching to welcome whatever it took to bring the race to its conclusion.

The root cause of strung-out racing in the Nationwide Series goes far beyond something a do-over at the end can cure. Besides, sometimes, every once in a while, a guy just flat out runs everybody into the ground.

There have been a number of changes implemented for the 2010 Sprint Cup season, all in the name of improving racing: the shark fin window spoiler, new tire compounds, bump-drafting galore, earlier and consistent start times and restarts run amok. While NASCAR had initially been slow to react to the indicators of waning interest – declining ratings, large sections of empty grandstands, and public commentary from fans at large – it responded decisively and in earnest for this year.

While the response has been generally welcomed and embraced, the new GWC rule is one that needs re-evaluation. After all, in an era where preserving what you have so they last longer has become a necessity, tearing up a bunch of racecars to help orchestrate a SportsCenter-worthy finish may not be something we need to be focused on.

You know, the old way of just ending the race when it was over worked pretty well for over 50 years. Apparently voting from the grandstands took precedent over tradition and established ways of doing things, though. On this particular issue, I am going to vote from my desktop and suggest three attempts at a GWC finish is about two too many… at least.

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