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No Bull: Bad Calls Can Quickly Cost You Credibility

While NASCAR raced at open-wheel’s hallowed ground on Sunday, IndyCar stole the spotlight hours after the checkered flag flew at Indianapolis. As Helio Castroneves led the field to the green flag and a restart on lap 92 of the 95-lap Honda Edmonton Indy, he stayed to the inside portion of the frontstretch as the field headed to turn 1.

Castroneves kept his line straight until they got to the first turn, where he arced the car out to get a better angle; but by that time, his teammate Will Power was already alongside of him, pulling up on the outside line. It didn’t look like a blatant block to those watching, as it seemed Castroneves simply took away the preferred inside line on the racetrack.

But IndyCar officials held a different view. Series COO Brian Barnhart ruled that Castroneves had, in fact, blocked Power and would need to serve a drive-through penalty. Castroneves didn’t oblige, then led the field to the checkered flag, a la Robby Gordon in Montreal just three years ago. However, like Gordon, he wasn’t scored the winner as a result.

If you follow motorsports, by now you’ve probably already seen the replay of Castroneves’s freakout that happened afterwards. The veteran contended that he wasn’t blocking, and yes, he didn’t make an attempt to cut Power off at any point. When Power moved to Castroneves’s outside, he didn’t try to force him any higher.

However, in the pre-race drivers’ meeting, Barnhart said that the leader, or any car not attempting to overtake, could not use the inside line on a straightaway. That, he said, would be perceived as blocking. And that is exactly what Castroneves did.

On the one hand, Barnhart should be applauded for enforcing the rule that he explicitly stated in the drivers’ meeting. Other drivers – even Power himself – said that Castroneves was blocking, much to the befuddlement of those covering and watching the race. That’s because at that point, no one even knew about Barnhart’s pre-race decree. Hard to make a judgment call based on information you don’t even have….

On the other hand, it’s a terrible decision. Yes, blocking occurs in the IndyCar Series. Heck, it occurs in most all forms of motorsports. But a driver can negate a block with the chrome horn fairly easily in a stock car. In an open-wheel situation, it’s much harder to escape without any damage occurring to either side.

So to completely take away a portion of the racetrack is absurd, especially when blocking isn’t something that’s clearly definable. It’s a judgment call, and to the untrained eye, Danica Patrick‘s block of Tony Kanaan down the backstretch at Texas (among other ones that have been very noticeable in 2010) was much more blatant. That block was unpenalized and helped lead to a second-place finish for Patrick.

There’s a difference between blocking and driving defensively, and it looked like Castroneves was driving defensively. He took away Power’s preferred line getting into the corner, a move we see in racing all the time. It wasn’t an abrupt decision, either, as he clearly announced his intentions a long way before entering turn 1.

So what now? The IndyCar Series doesn’t need to go so far as to say “have at it, boys (and girls)!,” but for a group of officials that won’t yank Milka Duno‘s license, this was an unnecessary, albeit foreshadowed, step.

Let the drivers race for the win, and if someone gets cut off, sure, then investigate the potential for a block. Simply driving on the inside half of the straightaway should not be deemed blocking, though. The sport could learn a thing or two from getting a little too overprotective; does NASCAR, bump-drafting and Talladega ring a bell?

But hey, at least IndyCar is receiving a ton of attention for this wild ending. And, it could always be worse. Roger Penske could have pulled a Ferrari and ordered Castroneves to pull over for Power….

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