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(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Beside the Rising Tide: Ready, Aim, D’Oh!

I find myself wondering if, somewhere in the sphere of the black helicopter conspiracy types and Armageddon survivalists, someone has developed a pair of bulletproof tactical boots. If so, they need to send a crate of those boots to Daytona Beach ASAP.

With unerring regularity, it seems every time a NASCAR official is placed in a position to fire from the hip making a judgment call, they invariably shoot themselves in the foot. Not content in having done so in attempts to explain themselves, they fire off round after round into their footwear, reload as necessary and then commence firing again.

Friday night’s XFINITY Series race was an embarrassment not only to NASCAR but in the realm of professional sports. By now, I’d guess everyone reading this column has seen the finish, viewed photographs or at bare minimum heard about it anyway.

Elliott Sadler and Kyle Larson were going at it tooth and nail, battling for the win coming out of the final corner on the final lap. While they were wide open (presumably with their tongues hanging out the corners of their mouths) they failed to notice that a rookie making just his second series start was making a massive run on them both, diving from the outside lane to the inside of the track. The NBC crew seemed equally stunned. You could almost hear them flipping through their notes trying to figure out who the hell was in the No. 24 car and if he was, in fact, on the lead lap. If they’d mentioned Justin Haley all evening it was only in passing… no pun intended.

Haley got to the inside of Sadler and Larson, passed them both and took the checkered flag. Meanwhile, across the United States coffee tables were being upended, snack bowls sent flying and fans left gaping at one another for confirmation of what they’d just seen. If Friday night’s race was scripted in Hollywood, Mickey Rooney would have been at the wheel of the No. 24 car and the orphanage run by beneficent nuns would be saved. In a week that included some ill-considered comments about the popularity of the sport suffering because of the lack of success of younger drivers (bam, bam, bam) what could be better? A 19-year-old kid in just his second NXS start wins one of the biggest prizes on the series schedule.

But don’t loot that collection plate just yet, Sister. Upon further review, NASCAR decided that fans, in fact, had not seen what they were still struggling to believe they had seen. NASCAR made the call that Haley had gone below the double yellow line, thus he’d gone out of bounds and thus, he had not won the race – Kyle Larson had. “Huh?” I thought to myself, scratching a large expanse of scalp where there once was hair. Haley hadn’t even finished second or third. He was officially listed as finishing 18th. Why? By the rules, the penalty for breaking the yellow line rule is a black flag. Since a black flag can’t be displayed after the checkered, NASCAR dropped Haley back to 18th, the last car on the lead lap.

Let’s get one issue off the table straight away. Haley did, in fact, venture below the yellow line. There’s indisputable photographic evidence to document that. But like Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott, we need more than a photograph. The yellow line rule says that a driver may not go beneath the yellow line to advance his position. (or, presumably, her position.) Some members of the NASCAR apologist media are so fond of that photo they’re presumably having it tattooed on a butt cheek so they can show it to you when asked. Look a little closer. (At the pictures, not their asses).

Haley had already passed both Larson and Sadler before he ventured below the yellow line. Haley was, in fact, leading the race and thus by definition could not possibly have advanced his position. (Bam, bam, bam.) NXS series director Wayne Auton added further confusion by saying that “even if” Haley had his (presumably his car’s) nose ahead when he went below the yellow line at the time (which meant Haley was, in fact, leading) he was “in the act of improving his position.”

Say what now? The cordite smell hanging in the air is making me a little woozy.

I’m not the only one who looked at the video evidence and concluded Haley was already the leader when he strayed out of bounds. Most of you folks did, too, and I had a very, very late night reading some very, very incendiary emails you sent and trying to explain my take on things. Even Brad Keselowski weighed in on Twitter and said he’d seen things play out as most of you had.

Now, Keselowski knows a thing or two about plate racing. He got his first win in a plate race at Talladega back in the spring of 2009. As I recall it, he felt that Carl Edwards was trying to run him below the yellow line to steal the win on the last lap. However, Keselowski decided to push back to avoid being disqualified. Edwards’ Ford was sent flying, tore up the catchfence and injured several fans watching the race.

A few things are worth noting here. (Or if they’re not, I’m still going to note them.) The finish reminded me a whole lot of the 1981 Talladega August race. Darrell Waltrip and Terry Labonte were so intent in battling to the checkers on the final lap they failed to notice a fellow by the name of Ron Bouchard sneaking to the inside of them both. Bouchard went on to win that race by about a foot to score his only career Cup victory.

Of note, there was no yellow line rule back then.  Nor were the cars fitted with restrictor plates in 1981. When someone tries to tell you that the plates make the racing more exciting at Talladega or Daytona (or, presumably other tracks starting next year) don’t drink the Kool-Aid. There were 39 lead changes at Talladega that August afternoon. There were 75 lead changes during the May Talladega race in 1984 four years before the plates were added. (Yes, the record for lead changes at the track, 88, comes from two plate races, the spring events of 2010 and 2011. But the last six Talladega races have, on average, just under 30 lead changes a race.)

Oddly enough, close and controversial finishes at Daytona date back to the very first NASCAR race run at the track, the 1959 Daytona 500. After 500 miles of high speed action, Lee Petty and Johnny Beauchamp crossed the finish line side by side. (Officially, the margin of victory was two feet, but that’s historical revisionism at its finest.) Beauchamp was flagged the winner, went to Victory Lane, smooched the beauty queen and got the trophy. Petty protested the finish.

At that point, NASCAR put out a desperate call for still photographs and any existing video of the finish by film crews from the news agencies that had crews at the track filming the goings on. (It was decades before TV covered NASCAR racing.) Eventually, the Wednesday after the race NASCAR decided Lee Petty had, in fact, won. The ever irascible head of the Petty clan noted later he never actually got the trophy for that win and guessed that Beauchamp had probably taken it with him to hell.

The yellow line rule began at Talladega back in 2001. After the drivers in Saturday’s then-Busch Series event used the apron of the track to make a bunch of passes, it was the final straw in a series of close calls several years in the making. That Sunday morning, NASCAR told the Cup drivers that going below the yellow line was out of bounds and any driver who did so would be black-flagged.

Like most hastily-added rules, the yellow line rule was poorly conceived. Over the years, NASCAR has added sub-rules about drivers who are “forced” out of bounds. They allow drivers who did go out of bounds to surrender any positions they gained and avoid a penalty. They then added the “to advance his position” verbiage. Like many well-intended notions come up with too quickly, the devil is in the details and the yellow line rule might as well have been a Satanic saturnalia.

I think going forward, NASCAR also has to look at how the rule should be enforced on the last lap of a race. Now wait just a cotton picking minute there, Bubba-Louie, I can hear some of you hollering. A rule is a rule. It doesn’t matter if the infraction occurs on the first lap, a lap prior to the end of one of those stupid stages or the last lap. If you break the rule, the penalty is the same. Forever and ever, amen.

But NASCAR already has some different rules and procedures for the final lap that rarely come into play but occasionally do. When a caution flag flies during a race, the field is reset using data from the closest timing and scoring line. (Taking into account any cars unable to continue at a reasonable pace behind the pace car as the result of an accident.) On the final lap of a race, NASCAR uses a different procedure. They utilize not only the timing and scoring data but all available video to try to determine who finished where in the event. I feel confident had NASCAR taken some time to review the video evidence of the last lap of Friday night’s race, Haley wouldn’t have been stripped of the win.

While not officially included in the rulebook, it’s evident to anyone paying attention NASCAR uses different criteria for deciding whether a wreck (or weather, ironically enough) warrants a caution. If there’s a big wreck in Turn 1 and the leaders are storming out of Turn 4 to the checkers, NASCAR has no choice but to throw a yellow. But if the wreck occurs on the backstretch and the leaders are coming out of Turn 4, NASCAR prefers to leave the race under green, then throw the caution once the leaders sort things out amongst themselves. So yes, there are, in fact, judgment calls on last laps as well. That’s even if a wreck or rain certainly would have been severe enough to bring out a caution with 20 laps to go. (As long as the TV folks weren’t hard up against their timeslot, of course.)

Like I said, I tend to be a lightning rod, but I can’t remember as many fans as angry as some of you were Friday night lashing out like that in unison. There was even talk of organizing a fan boycott of the next NXS race to let NASCAR know a lot of fans aren’t happy with what went down Friday night. Given the miniscule crowd and ratings at most NXS races this year, would anyone even notice?

One final point, and since it’s a bit off topic, I’ve saved it for last. A lot of folks want to (hell, demand to) know why it is a driver who drops a tire below the yellow line breaking a rule can have a win taken from him while a driver whose car breaks the rules in post-race inspection gets to keep his victory. I’m a bit curious about that myself. Haley didn’t knowingly break the rules. At 180 mph, you’re traveling 264 feet a second, almost the length of a football field. If a car is modified against the rules to make it faster and that chicanery is found after a race there is in most cases, deliberation, effort and intent to break that rule over the course of days and hours and on the part of more than one team member.

The NASCAR rulebook is like Bigfoot. It is oft mentioned but seldom seen, at least at the fan level. I’ve been hoping that if this internet thing works out, perhaps NASCAR could post it for public consumption. But given that it’s apparently written in pencil rather than ink and every rule seems to have “’cept when we say otherwise” added at the end, that might be a fool’s errand and I’m busy this week.

Once again, NASCAR says that is a work in progress. So is evolution. But I’m not convinced if I go to the Monkey House at the zoo later this weekend, one of the residents is going to be hunched over a keyboard banging out a horror novel worthy of Stephen King. Though I suppose it is possible one of the simians could bang out next week’s column for me….

HENDERSON: COULD NEW OFFICIATING TECHNOLOGY HAVE AFFECTED HALEY CALL?

About Matt McLaughlin

Matt McLaughlin
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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18 comments

  1. Watching the end of this race, I knew they would take the win away and come up with some bogus reason to give the win to Larson. It would have been the story of the season thus far and Nascar killed it in a matter of minutes. They could have at least took a little longer to make the announcement to make it look better.

    The hypocrisy is that if Larson was the one who went below the yellow line, there is no way on god’s green earth that they take the win away from him. It still appears that Nascar thinks that the Cup regulars are why people watch the XFinity series. They must not look at the grandstands and tv ratings very often. Every time I try to come back to this sport, something like this happens, and am reminded why I find other things to do on my weekends. I really hope Nascar sells to someone with integrity who actually cares about the sport.

    On another note, the PGA tour just released its schedule for next year, adjusting it so as not to have its playoffs compete with the NFL in September. Nascar has done nothing to their schedule in years. Maybe they should finally get with the program.

  2. nascar and the post office have something in common, both have been in business for a long time and neither know how to run their businesses

  3. Surely, in the monkey house, they are typing Kurt Vonegut manuscripts.

  4. I was there Friday night, sitting just past the SF line. Haley’s move was simply amazing to see live and his surge of speed there was breathtaking. That said – NASCAR can’t win here with the call either way. For what it’s worth – I thought he was below even as he was taking the checkers in front of me and expected it to be overturned. Friday night was much better to see than Saturday’s wreck-fest.

  5. 24 was the winner of the race … NASCAR was again the loser

  6. Yep, it did suck to strip that win away. I happened to watch the last half of the third stage and thought I saw something pretty special and was thrilled that I got to see it. And then, the heavy hand.

    I agree with those that feel he did not break the rule as it is written. However I thought the intent was to treat the yellow line like an imaginary concrete wall. So I’d be fine with it IF NASCAR consistently treated it that way but they won’t, and therein lies the real problem.

  7. I was personally really pissed NASCAR took that win away. It was a thrilling move, the stuff I love about racing. At first I said to myself “awesome”! Then the man in the box said no and I screamed bullshit. That was not why the rule was instituted.
    But here’s the rub. For years NASCAR has gotten grief for inconsistent rules enforcement. Whether or not you like the rule, it is one. NASCAR has put themselves in a box by their behavior in the past.
    But he did pass and got the lead before the yellow line. What determines when “advancing your position” ends? Especially on the last lap. On the last lap you should be able to into the grass out of turn 4 if it helps you win, so be it.
    Lastly, the “spirit” of the rule doesn’t count coming to the finish. Nobody is going to be “blending in” after the checkered flag.
    Oh well, another example of over regulation. Drop the rag and let them run.

  8. “Though I suppose it is possible one of the simians could bang out next week’s column for me….”

    Or replace Brian.

    • Please stop. The France family isn’t going to fire Brian France. If they didnt like how things were going they could have banded together and changed things. Since they haven’t?

      • But what if it was a really cool monkey that could do tricks and stuff?

        • Like actually improve “the product?”

          • unless ”product” and “dollars” are interchangeable no way.

            But seriously, theyve got enough money to last for generations, and they are still making millions. Admittedly fewer millions than before, so they are going to fire one of the family? The one that was supposed to carry on the business. Do you really think so?

  9. Thank you, Matt, for highlighting the sheer stupidity of Friday night’s ruling. If NASCAR is going to be so ANAL about that stupid f***ing yellow line rule, then they need to more thoroughly flesh out these fine details that they only seem to come up with when their ruling is questioned. According to the verbiage of the rule currently printed in the rulebook, that was a legal pass. It’s impossible to “advance your position” when you’ve already done so before the alleged “infraction”.

    Another point on this issue that I was sorta hoping you’d touch on in the article is NASCAR’s grotesque level of hypocrisy. The yellow line rules has always been about “safety”. First off, it’s caused so many more wrecks than it’s prevented, I can’t begin to tabulate them all. Anyhow, my point is this: a guy PLOWING through the leader and sending him head-on into the turn 3 wall at 200 mph is perfectly fine or “safe” (see Austin Dillon in this year’s 500), but yet a guy who’s ALREADY THE LEADER gets a win stripped for an honest move that doesn’t even technically violate the rules as they’re written. It’s beyond the pale. The fact that it ruined an incredible underdog victory was just the icing on the dog turd cake.

    PS – I watch most of the races every week with my 80 year old grandfather, who lives with my wife and I. The finish of that race left us hootin’ and hollerin’ like we haven’t done in years…it was such an incredible move! Such a great story! And then 1 minute later, after they announced the penalty, it was like all of the positive energy (and oxygen) had been sucked out of the room. We were speechless. And not in a good way.

    Sad.

  10. Agreed Matt. Haley made a heckuva move to win the race.

    On a side note, the race Saturday night would have had twice as many lead changes and half as many cautions if………..NASCAR were to eliminate Blocking.
    In the 80’s, no one blocked another car (if wasn’t dignified) and hence you had lead change after lead change.
    If NASCAR eliminated blocking (or even allowed one block) the lead changes in these races would sky-rocket. It would also allow someone who lost the lead the opportunity to regain the lead. Allowing one guy to switch lanes constantly, kills the competition at the front.

  11. Thanks Matt, I didn’t get to see this and appreciate your Walk Thru and snarky comments!

  12. nascar rules always have the wiggle room, open to interpretation.

    felt sorry for the kid.

  13. AMEN, my heart broke for that courageous kid. And it was clear he did nothing wrong. I was pissed off. Then you have the CUPPER, The “BAT BOY” looking Larson in V-LANE like it “earned it”. NASCAR sucks. And the explanation for the stooge they have these days to defend NASTYCARS insanity made me want to vomit. And they talk about wanting the little teams and young guys etc…LIARS!

    Justin made a damn good move!!!!!! Awesome. Talk about taking the wind out of some wonderful, fantastic sails. FREAK YOU NASCAR. You lie!