NASCAR fans at Richmond International Raceway saw some great racing this weekend. However, they also saw two races with wacky endings. Both the XFINITY Series race on Saturday and Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series event had twist endings that were bought about by rule violations. NASCAR made good calls in some instances, bad calls in others, but too often found themselves boxed in by their own rules. As a result, the talk of the NASCAR world leaving Richmond will be more about rules than racing.
Firstly, the XFINITY race was shaping up to be a good battle. Justin Allgaier had the dominant car of the race, but Elliott Sadler had the advantage of fresher tires and was slowly reeling in his JR Motorsports teammate.
With 12 laps to go, just as Sadler got Allgaier in his sights, BJ McLeod appeared to lose an engine on the backstretch, prompting NASCAR to throw a caution flag. For the record, Sadler noted after the race that he did not see the track crew put down any speedy-dry on the backstretch, making him wonder why the caution was needed in the first place.
Nevertheless, the caution was out, and everyone went to pit road. Ty Dillon and the No. 3 team gambled by taking only two tires, which put Dillon in the lead. On the ensuing restart, things began to come unraveled. Dillon had a great jump on Allgaier and third place Kyle Larson, perhaps a little too strong. Yet a crash back in the pack quickly brought the race back under caution and then a brief red flag. During that time, NASCAR declared that Dillon had accelerated before reaching the restart box and was issued a penalty.
In the strictest sense, NASCAR was not wrong to penalize the No. 3 car. Replays showed that Dillon did hit the gas slightly before the restart zone. However, Dillon was not the only one pushing the envelope on the restart. Both Allgaier and Larson were considerably laying back on the restart, hoping to gain an advantage on Dillon when the race returned to green. Technically speaking, that is not supposed to happen either, and it likely contributed to Dillon accelerating too early.
The problem is that when drivers lay back on a restart, their positions are measured relative to the leader. In contrast, there are lines on the track that demarcate the restart zone. NASCAR could have potentially penalized Allgaier and Larson as well, but it would have been much more of a judgement call. The No. 7 and No. 42 teams could have argued that the only reason they were so far back was because Dillon restarted the race before he should have. Who got penalized came down to how much hard evidence there was, which left Dillon on the worst end of the ruling.
However, things got even weirder after that. Larson and Allgaier were left to battle for the win, with Larson now in the lead.
The race went green in an overtime scenario, and Larson was able to clear Allgaier and reach the overtime line. Seconds later, Ryan Reed angled up on the backstretch with Cole Custer and Matt Tifft. The caution lights came on, and the race was apparently over. Yet when Larson and Allgaier reached the flag stand, the flagman only displayed the white flag.
The race, according to NASCAR’s rules, was in fact over, which is a problem in of itself.
Unlike the previous green-white-checker rules that were scrapped at the beginning of last year, the overtime rules allow for a caution on the penultimate lap to end a race, as long as the leader has crossed the overtime line on the backstretch of most tracks. From a fan’s perspective, the rule change is frustrating, because it decreases the chance of a race finishing under green flag conditions. Never mind that NASCAR could easily come up with new rules to ensure that all races end under green in the first place.
For the drivers, it obviously was not clear if the race was over or not. Larson and Allgaier immediately dropped their window nets after taking only the white flag, but drove around the track at a pretty quick clip on their last lap. Despite winning the Dash 4 Cash, Allgaier was visibly frustrated after the race, leading to the bizarre scene of the XFINITY driver rather unhappily accepting a $100,000 check from the series sponsor.
The theme of either drivers being unfamiliar with the rules or NASCAR not being clear about them carried over into Sunday’s Cup Series race. This time, there were no controversial restarts or race-ending cautions, but there were a series of commitment line violations that doomed a few contenders. NASCAR issued a total of six of them, all within the last 100 laps of the race. The two that had the biggest impact on the outcome of the event were called against Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr.
Busch’s penalty occurred on lap 378, during the last caution flag of the race. Busch was in second at the time, crossing the orange box just after race leader Joey Logano. In fact, Busch’s view of the box might have been obscured by Logano, who dove off the banking at the last moment to head for pit road.
When asked about the penalty after the race, Busch’s only comment was “Balls and strikes.”
Truex incurred his penalty under the previous caution on lap 368. He was one of several drivers who had to bypass a safety truck at the exit of turn three before going to the pits. However, Truex did not, or perhaps could not, get all four tires below the orange box as he came to pit road.
“I thought the rule was two on or under the box,” Truex said after the race, “but obviously the call was that we were illegal and had to get a penalty, so I don’t know what the deal is there.”
Truex has much greater reason to be upset by the commitment line penalty than Busch does. Yes, Busch’s infraction took away his shot to win, while Truex was able to rebound and finish 10th. However, Truex’s view of the orange box was blocked by a safety vehicle, not another competitor. From the No. 78 team’s perspective, it could be argued that the driver was not responsible for the violation.
On the other hand, if NASCAR had waived the No. 78 team’s penalty, the No. 18 team’s subsequent infraction would have only been more controversial. If NASCAR was to start handing out or withholding commitment line penalties based on why the violation happened, then it would really become a judgement call. Truex’s situation was unfortunate, but it is understandable why NASCAR reacted the way it did, going once again with ruling on hard evidence.
What was troubling was Truex’s comment about the actual commitment line rule. To clarify, Richmond does not have an orange cone sitting at the entrance to pit road like most tracks, because the racing groove is so close to the pit entrance. Instead, there is an orange box painted on the track to serve in place of the cone.
In the past, drivers have been able to commit to pit road by driving at least two tires to the left of the orange box. However, the rule was apparently changed for 2017, and drivers now have to drive completely to the left of the box to commit to pit road. Considering the number of penalties issued, Truex’s comment, and Busch’s terse interview, the message might not have been clear.
Understand that the blame is not solely on NASCAR for some of the things that happened this weekend. The drivers have a responsibility to know the rules. Additionally, NASCAR would have opened itself up to greater criticism by penalizing Allgaier and Larson or not penalizing Truex. Sometimes judgement calls must be made in sports.
That said, NASCAR could help itself by revising or clarifying some of its rules. Unless the sanctioning body makes a hard and fast rule about laying back, drivers will continue to play games on restarts. It would not hurt to clarify the commitment line policies either, and there is absolutely no excuse for not having the yellow flag ready during Saturday’s XFINITY race. NASCAR may not want rules and penalties to be the storyline following a weekend of great short track racing, but that is what the fans have been left with.