Sunday’s Talladega event was notable as one of the tamer such affairs run at the track though in this instance, tame is not to be thought of as a derisive term. The track “where the wild things are” is normally known for big, huge, smoking pig piles of wrecks coming to the checkers, racing geared toward the least common denominator in general. Whether the orderly, single-car conga line that crossed beneath the checkered flag was a result of Jimmie Johnson serving as wingman to ensure his teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. would make the Chase, or whether that same Chase and the preposterous rules for eligibility (of the three cars directly behind the No. 88, two drivers had already punched their tickets for the playoffs and the third wasn’t eligible) is fodder for a future column.
What had me up in arms after the race (and I’m feeling much better now that I’m back on my meds, thanks) was NASCAR’s decision to not to throw the caution flag for Carl Edwards‘s wreck on the final lap of the race. The decision stood in stark contrast to the one made on the last lap of the last restrictor-plate event, the Daytona 500. A yellow flag on the final lap of that one sealed the deal for Joey Logano, a driver whose weekend foray in Alabama rivaled Custer’s last visit to Montana. As per the normal nattering nabobs at NASCAR newspeak, the sanctioning body will do everything in its power to ensure races finish under green because that’s what the fans want to see. On the other hand, those same talking heads will wring their hands in solicitude to the virtues of driver safety coming before all else. So which is it?
After February’s 500, NASCAR defended its decision to throw the caution flag on the final lap to concerns that Kyle Larson might be injured after hitting the wall hard; thus, the need to get track safety workers and EMTs to the scene without delay. On Sunday, NASCAR officials decided through their infinite wisdom that Edwards was most likely righter than rain and he could just sit there awhile until the race was over. Of course, that meant a pack of cars went blowing past the stricken No. 19 car, which was sitting sideways to traffic at high rates of speed still jockeying for position which very well might have triggered a disaster. Only Matt Kenseth would admit to slowing down even absent a caution out of his desire not to drill his teammate Edwards directly in the driver’s side numbers.
That decision to slow cost Kenseth many positions and might well have ended with him getting run over from behind, because as long as that green flag is still waving, some drivers are going to drive on as heedlessly as a starving stray dog chasing a medium-rare, T-bone steak roped to the back of a garbage truck. One cannot help but be amazed at NASCAR officials’ ability to see into the future and determine whether any driver has been hurt and to predict there will be no further carnage if racing is allowed to continue. The trick, I’d venture, is once having decided a driver is uninjured to keep him that way. If NASCAR’s prognosticators could actually see the future, they wouldn’t currently be going through the trouble and expense of tearing up unneeded seats at their tracks having badly overestimated the sport’s future potential for growth during the boom era.
Even a casual fan of the sport will recall instances too frequent to enumerate where earlier in a race, a car brushes the wall, the driver regains control and motors on as happy as a monkey in a gum-gum tree but NASCAR throws a yellow flag anyway. In other instances, the flagman waves the yellow hanky frantically to indicate to drivers that debris, which appears to be an empty bottle cap well off the racing line, has them all in imminent peril and thus the orderly conducting of the race must be bought to a screeching halt while FOX conveniently cuts to commercial. When they do, they’re missing the life and death struggle as alert track workers tackle an empty sandwich baggie to the ground before further mayhem ensues.
Gentle Readers, we have discussed to death the fact that these unwarranted debris cautions always seem to occur when a race is turning into a tedious rout, so I won’t belabor that point. I’ll just go on record as saying if a single-car incident warrants a caution on lap 5, that same scenario on the final lap warrants one as well. And if an innocuous bit of debris warrants a caution midway through the race, a full-sized gaudily-painted racecar with large numbers painted on the side warrants a caution on the final lap of the race. In taking two contrary positions on when cautions should fly, NASCAR is orchestrating the race, not officiating the event. But in the end, it seems it always comes back to “The Product,” the unfortunate nickname that Brian France has bestowed on stock car racing. “The Product” is “entertainment,” I’ve heard said. Wrong. “The Product” is a sport. Sports can often be entertaining, but entertainment is not often sporting.
The frustrating part of Sunday’s finale was that Earnhardt Jr. was leading when Edwards got sideways on the last lap. He won the race, as we all know. He’d led the final 26 laps of the race virtually unchallenged. Had they decided to double the event’s length after lap 162, Junior would have won anyway. Throwing a caution flag on the final lap with the No. 88 leading would have been heralded with hosannas from those diehard fans in Alabama still sober enough to spell the word or seated with someone nearby who could explain its meaning.
Perhaps my opinion is tainted because I remember the “bad old days” when drivers still raced to the caution, often in a desperate attempt to get a lap back, and the leader would decide to allow such a tactic if the struggling driver was a teammate or to race him hard if he was a rival. It’s strangely ironic that FOX chose to show highlight film of Jeff Gordon’s 77th career victory at Talladega. Viewers might have wondered why Gordon was being pelted with beer cans as he celebrated his win. First off, that race was allowed to end under caution. Secondly, that win allowed Gordon to surpass Dale Earnhardt’s career victory total, on the Man’s birthday, no less. And from that unseemly display sprang the green-white-checkered system. It’s interesting that in the ARCA series, even if the caution flag flies after the white flag, they still have a single-lap shootout for all the marbles.
About the same time, NASCAR banned racing back to the caution. To counter protests that would leave a good driver in a good car stuck a lap down because of an early-race mishap, NASCAR added a rule that the first driver a lap down would get his (or her) lap back. When first implemented, that rule was simply called “the Free Pass.” The usual suspects at FOX then came up with the cartoonish Lucky Dog moniker in a misguided attempt to shill t-shirts. It also provided reasons to shareholders why that annoying old DW was making the big bucks when he’d likely rant and ramble on about nothing, chatting like a schizophrenic on a street corner for free. By and large, fans seem to despise the rule no matter what you call it, but my guess is those are newer fans who don’t recall watching Dale Jarrett sitting sideways to traffic at Loudon as the field raced back to the caution, a tragedy nearly as averted as surely as the tale of the Monkey and the Engineer. I’ll live with the free pass rather than the previous alternative. I just won’t call the rule by a silly name presented by Aaron’s, another marketing gaffe of epic proportions.
While we’re blowing our collective noses in the general direction of the NASCAR officials in the tower, let’s recall that other flag they have at their disposal to orchestrate… er, I mean officiate races, the dreaded red one. I can provide no hard numbers to support my theory, but I recall for decades that the red flag rarely flew except in the event of bad weather or the most serious of incidents. Nowadays it seems to fly at least once every two or three races, with some events stopped by more than one red flag in a single afternoon. “So what you rambling old curmudgeon,” some will say (and their lack of manners is deplorable), “I paid good money to see cars racing, not parading around in a single-file line.” (Really? So why did you buy that ticket to Talladega, again?) Yep, there’s few things worse than watching the waning laps click off as the drivers circle the track behind the pace car at school-zone speeds. That happens in sports. It’s not allowed in entertainment. So toss the red hanky by all means and let’s put on a show. What’s the harm? The harm, in fact, stems from the fact that NASCAR is arbitrarily rewarding some teams’ questionable strategies while confounding other teams’ more conventional strategies.
Let’s leave names out of it because they’re hot buttons that color folks’ opinions. In this instance we just have driver and team A, and driver B and team B. Driver A and his crew chief decide to gamble they’ll have enough gas to finish the race even if the race goes into extra innings with a GWC finish, though it will be tight. Driver B and his crew chief decide to play it safe and stop for a splash of gas on a late caution to eliminate fuel mileage concerns. (Yeah Driver B is probably more worried about points, but let’s not open that can of worms.) He falls to the back of the top 10, the last driver on the lead lap, but if and when drivers ahead of driver B make their own dashes to the pits or run out of gas, he will pass them and enjoy a good finish, maybe even win the race. There’s a nasty crash with two laps to go; curse that driver C and driver D and their insane childish rivalry. There’s fluid on the track, and it’s going to take a bit to get the track back into raceable condition. Driver A and his team are frantic. Their car is sputtering on fumes as the race reaches its advertised distance. One more lap around under caution and he’s toast. Driver B, meanwhile is sitting pretty with plenty of gas in the tank, preparing to waste perfectly good beer by spraying it all over his teammates. But the red flag flies and the field is bought to a halt. Driver B’s strategy is foiled while Driver A gets a little corporate welfare. If driver A has fresh tires for the final two-lap (or four-lap or six-lap, who knows) shootout, so must driver B, so he ducks into the pits as well. Driver A wins the race and the crowd goes wild. Except for all those folks who have Driver B’s handsome mug imprinted on their lunchboxes.
In throwing that red flag NASCAR has once again orchestrated a race outcome, not officiated the race. If down the road, Driver A ekes out a championship scoring two or three more points than Driver B, well, Hellfire son, they don’t show fuel mileage victories on the highlight reels, do they? Driver B launches into a profane tirade cursing his luck and complaining about the unfairness of it all then punches out a Make-A-Wish kid. He loses his ride and his sponsor. He finds himself living in a dilapidated trailer home, making occasional hobby stock starts in exchange for a bag of groceries, a bottle and some of them pills that help him sleep through the night. Or worse yet, he finds himself reduced to writing columns about auto racing for a living.
It’s time to shut down the Daytona Beach Orchestra and let races play out naturally. If a driver is at risk, be it on the first lap or the last, throw the caution. If track workers trying to clean up after a wreck are in imminent peril or a real toad-floater of a storm pummels the track, then and only then should the red flag wave. NASCAR in their infinite wisdom says that they’re only giving the fans what they want. (Sort of like taking the Labor Day race weekend from Darlington and moving it to Fontana. How’d that work out for ya’ll?) Based on post-race reaction at Talladega Sunday, maybe we should give the No. 88 car a 50-lap head start so that he wins every weekend. We’ll just call it the GWJ rule; Give the Win to Junior. Meanwhile, I’m off to go fishing with a few Ozarks to toss in the pond. It’s not very sporting, but it sure is entertaining.