It was a late October day in Virginia, paired with temperatures that felt more like Memorial Day and not a cloud in the sky. There was a race that actually started prior to 1:30 at Martinsville, the scenic and historic half-mile short track nestled in a historic area ablaze in autumnal foliage. Good ol’ short track racing, side-by-side, lap after lap ensued with tempers getting short and fenders getting shredded. It was NASCAR racing for the longtime fan, competition the way it ought to be but usually ain’t.
What could go wrong?
Well, for one thing a caution flag flew on lap 358 after Carl Edwards slammed the wall. That mis-happenstance fell right at the beginning of a sequence of green-flag pit stops. (Yes! Green-flag pit stops at Martinsville. I checked the ashtray and there’s no Denver roaches so yes, it really did happen.) NASCAR is normally loathe to throw caution flags in the midst of a pit stop cycle; but, in instances like Sundays they’re left with little choice. Then, just to get in on the act AJ Allmendinger, who was listed as leader of the race at that point, ran out of gas after picking up the pace car.
Naturally, there was a great deal of confusion amongst the competitors and fans as far as who was running in what order and how many laps one driver or another might be off the pace. That confusion also reached the control booth where NASCAR’s braintrust huddled to try and sort out the mess. Talk about bringing a knife to a gunfight. For a full half hour – about thirty laps – the confusion dragged on. (Not to get off topic, but why wasn’t the red flag displayed once it became obvious this whole mess was going to take a while to sort out? )
To add to the merriment, Jimmie Johnson’s mount rolled to a stop under the extended caution. It was thought the No. 48 Chevrolet had run out of gas but, as it turns out, that wasn’t the case. Johnson said after the race he accidentally triggered an ECU switch to the off position while doing something else. (I don’t know…. maybe he was trying to tune the radio to get a local traffic report?) That, in turn led to Steve Letarte giving an extended explanation on how the reserve fuel tank works, a nice thought except I am told such a system would be illegal. I know I’ve never heard of anyone switching to the reserve tank before and I’ve been following this sport a long time.
Yes, the circumstances were less than ideal. But in these days of computerized scoring I am baffled why NASCAR couldn’t revert to the last timing loop the leader crossed prior to the caution flag flying. With all the cameras inside the cars and around the track it should have been easier to decide any judgment calls. Certainly, officials could have been able to get a quick handle on which drivers were on the lead lap and which were one or more laps down. The wave-around rule also caused a great deal of problems. There seemed to be a general uproar when Kevin Harvick passed the pace car to take advantage of the situation but in the end, he wound up finishing 20th anyway so some folks will say it doesn’t matter.
One of the reasons NASCAR gave for the extensive amount of time to restart the race was that every point was so crucial in a Chase race. Balderdash to that. NASCAR ought to be just as careful and determined to get the restarting order perfect in every race. After all, a single lost point could potentially keep a driver from making the Chase in the first place. Comments like that help explain why a lot of fans feel NASCAR shows favoritism to the Chasers intending to keep their version of the playoffs exciting right down to the last lap at Homestead.
Certainly, some folks sounded the alarm earlier in the race when NASCAR threw a caution for “debris on the back straight” moments after Johnson’s Chevrolet developed a severe tire rub. The “debris” in question was an advertising banner along the backstretch that was beginning to tear. Yep, that was another new one for me. But as the announcers in the NBC booth direly warned, that banner could have blocked off a car’s front grille keeping cooling air from reaching the radiator. Or, it could have entirely blocked a driver’s windshield. (I couldn’t have been the only person thinking to myself, “or put someone’s eye out!”) Has NASCAR instituted a rule against giant inflatable fruit props at the track after the near calamity at Chicago way back when?
Anyways, the fact Johnson’s Chevy wound up sitting stationary for an extended period of time during the fuel crisis that wasn’t had others screaming especially since Johnson was clearly not maintaining pace car speed. Officially, I am told that there were only four cars on the lead lap when Johnson’s Chevy rolled silently to a stop. (Maybe to see if the levee was dry? I believe there’s a reserve levee behind the dyke.) The leader never passed him, or whomever NASCAR presumed to be the leader at that moment never passed the No. 48.
Maybe it was all legit. Who knows? But there’s no arguing that the extended caution did affect the outcome of the race. Had the event been red-flagged and restarted just about every team would have had to make an additional pit stop.
A great deal of the confusion stemmed from NASCAR’s wave-around rule instituted in 2009. There was even some confusion as to the “free pass” rule which is often referred to as the “fortunate canine” rule or something like that. I know some, if not most of you are going to disagree with me on this point but I actually favor the free pass rule.
Why? Most of you were around back in the day but allow me to address newer fans here a moment. Before the free pass rule went into effect the field actually raced back to the yellow flag. A driver who was a lap down could try to speed up (sometimes roaring through the scene of the wreck) to beat the leader back to the caution flag. The leader could choose to let that fellow by (if he was a teammate or friend) or speed up himself to pin the other driver a lap down. Things didn’t always work out as expected. Dale Earnhardt Sr., for example was notorious for not letting his teammate Mike Skinner get a lap back.
Whatever the case, having drivers racing back to the yellow often delayed rolling emergency vehicles to the scene of the wreck and I hope we can all agree that’s not acceptable. Everything came to a boil at New Hampshire many years ago when Dale Jarrett’s stricken race car was stalled sideways on the track with the driver’s side numbers facing oncoming traffic. Other drivers were still racing to the line, coming at full speed and with Jarrett sitting vulnerable inside the car. Fortunately, nobody hit DJ but it was a close call and soon afterwards the free pass rule was added to the rulebook. If the alternative is to have drivers racing back to the yellow again, I can live with that alternative.
The wave-around rule is another matter altogether. It was a rule that NASCAR made for stupid people, a tacit admission they think a whole lot of their fans are stupid. Here’s how it works. Let’s say that there’s 16 cars on the lead lap and six cars one lap down in a race to make the numbers easy. (And Harvick is very likely one of them.) A caution flag falls because Johnson’s reserve tank falls off the car and the first 16 cars dive for the pits. Cars a lap or more down can elect to stay out on the track (which means they forego the advantage of fresh tires and a full tank of fuel.)
Those lap down cars cannot pass the pace car and advance their position (even if it is bright pink.) Then, the 16 lead-lap cars return to the track. For purposes of this example let’s say drivers in positions 1-16 maintain their running order exiting the pits and nobody gets caught going Denny Hamlin on the timing lines. (Nor does anyone exit the pits with a fuel can still attached to the car. Though that didn’t draw a caution recently it does seem a fuel can falling off a car is a lot more likely to cause mayhem and injury than an advertising banner but let’s not go there.)
So anyway, the race leader at the time of caution (who also exited the pits first) returns to the track. Technically, he’s still ahead of those six cars between him and the pace car. Those six drivers are on “the tail end of the lead lap.” Thus, they were running in positions 17-22 but they are restarting the race ahead of the leader and the other lead-lap cars. As our British friends might say: “Oh well. Can’t be helped. Carry on.”
Typically, the leaders who had pitted made quick work of the “tail end of the lead lap” cars given their fresher tires and to be up front, they typically had faster, better-handling cars. The action as the field settled itself back to stasis was often quite exciting and more than a few times quite physical. It breathed some life back into many races that had long since gotten stale with the leader having advantage of clean air on the nose of his car and no one in the way. Eventually, any driver who stayed out would have to pit. Their hope was that the caution would fly again quickly, allowing them to restart at the tail end of the pack.
Yes, you had to know who drove which car to sort things out on such a restart. The leader was the inside car on row four, not row one but most race fans could sort that out in their minds. Stupid people could not. Stupid people need the leader to restart right behind the pace car on the front row to know who was winning and NASCAR decided to cater to the stupid people, not fans invested in the sport with an IQ higher than a Screaming Hairy Armadillo. (Hey, back in the day, the lead-lap cars used to line up in order on the outside lane with the cars a lap or more down lined up in order on the inside lane for restarts!)
However, the wave-around rule is corporate welfare for everyone. Was a driver a lap down because he pitted just before the caution flag flew and everyone else stayed out, or was he a lap down ten laps into the race because his car was running like a three-legged goat and he wasn’t a very good driver to begin with? Doesn’t matter; everyone gets this wave-around rule now! So we go from a race with four drivers on the lead lap to 20 drivers on the lead lap without anyone technically having passed anyone at all. (Unless you want to count the pace car.) It’s a stupid rule for stupid people and I’ve rarely heard any fan with anything kind to say about it, though I guess some of them are more tolerant of the foolishness when it benefits their favorite driver.
Certainly, not having the wave-around rule would have greatly simplified resetting the starting order for the race last Sunday. First would have come the cars one lap down that stayed out, then the four cars on the lead lap, then the one free pass driver starting two spots behind the leader. Next would have been the cars a lap down that did pit or cars two or more laps down.
That’s how we play tic-tac-toe in Timbuktu and there’s no need to argue over it for 30 laps while trying to straighten out a colossal mess while running cars out of gas out on the track with the pits closed. Nor do we need to give the pit crews a mulligan by eliminating the need for a final stop after a half-hour long ordeal.
When the nice folks down at Martinsville coined the phrase “a half-mile of mayhem” to describe their track I don’t think a prolonged, mind-boggling scoring error was what they had in mind. But given the nature of the gimmickry and new rules in modern day stock car racing perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the law of unintended consequences and unexpected circumstances cause all this confusion. You’d like to think after racing 67 years at a half-mile short track the powers that be could handle an occasional curveball. But somehow, an old expression about a two-car funeral in a one-parlor town kept coming to mind on what should have been a perfect Sunday afternoon.