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.
Bummed by this ruling. He earned the win. https://t.co/uyonkcAng4
— Brad Keselowski (@keselowski) July 7, 2018
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….