No, they didn’t… did they?
Did NASCAR blatantly throw a pseudo “debris” caution with 10 laps to go in a Chase race, altering the outcome and granting a bye to someone that didn’t see the front all day?
Yes, it appears so.
Coming to take 10 to go in Sunday’s MyAFibStory.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway, the race appeared to be over. Kurt Busch was cruising in the lead, running three seconds ahead of second-place Jeff Gordon and slowly pulling away. Busch, who entered the Chase for the Sprint Cup with two wins after missing three races earlier in the season, appeared that he was going to start his hunt for a second Cup title with a win and a crucial bye into the second round.
To his credit, Busch took the loss with ease, finding the silver lining in a third-place finish.
“It was the difference-maker today,” said Busch of the restart. “But overall, I’m really proud of this team and everybody at Haas Automation and Stewart-Haas Racing. This Chevy was fast. It was fast enough to win. When the caution came out there at the end, I thought we had the right strategy, but we didn’t.
“But this is a points day. This is a long journey through these next 10 weeks. We weren’t given a hall pass now, through Loudon and through Dover. We’ve just got to work hard as a team and saddle-up.”
Busch kept his cool, but this isn’t the first time a questionable late-race caution has cost the Nevada native a victory. Busch looked to be cruising to a win earlier this season at Auto Club Speedway when similar circumstances prevented him from making his way to victory lane.
The final caution wasn’t the first time Jacques Debris made an appearance at the 1.5-mile oval. Debris brought an end to the longest green flag run of the season earlier in the race, and aided the throwing of the race’s penultimate yellow as well. However, no yellow was more unforgivable than the last one.
Phantom “debris” cautions are never acceptable. Sure, they may add to the excitement or intrigue of a race, but they damage the integrity of the sport in the process, a cost too high to justify the means.
The damage was intensified tenfold on Sunday, when NASCAR’s decision to throw the yellow changed the outcome of the opening race of the 2015 Chase for the Sprint Cup, which could ultimately change the entire storyline of the next nine races. Should Busch encounter issues, he could still miss the first cutoff. Meanwhile, Hamlin, who has had issues with consistency this season, is sitting pretty with a guaranteed trip to the next round.
The one affected greatest by the final caution was neither Busch nor Hamlin, but Gordon. Gordon, who led laps and appeared to be a legitimate threat to earn his first win of 2015, was running second when the debris caution fell. Gordon would spin his tires on the ensuing restart, dropping back to 14th, Gordon now finds himself a mere three points ahead of the cutoff.
Though the effects on him were minor in comparison, even Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the time to chime in on the recent trend of late race cautions.
“I don’t like debris cautions, especially those kind,” said Earnhardt. “When you have a late yellow, it takes all the damn work you did all day out of it”
Earnhardt’s words, while caused by frustration, proved true on Sunday. Busch and Gordon served a sacrificial lambs in the latest edition of NASCAR’s apparent 10-lap shootout requirement.
At this point, one has to wonder if NASCAR would be best off owning up to their want for a thrilling finish and adding mandated “competition” cautions with 10 laps remaining each week. At least then the cautions would have a clearly-defined cause.