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(Photo: Barry Cantrell/NKP)

Beside the Rising Tide: NASCAR Making the Rules Up as They Go… Again

Let me start by saying I cannot summon up my normal degree of rage when I disagree with calls NASCAR has made from this weekend. Anytime a restrictor plate race concludes and I don’t have to start working on a driver obituary or try to gather information on fans injured in the grandstands (like after Carl Edwards’ dreadful last lap crash at ‘Dega in 2009) I consider it a good day.

Like a good number of you, I’m chewing antacids and reciting prayers the nuns taught me in grade school in the days and hours leading up to a plate race. There are no significant racing injuries to report after this weekend’s racing in Alabama, though my guess is Parker Kligerman might differ in his opinion of what a “significant injury” involves after a savage wreck late in Saturday’s CWTS event.

As we discussed last week, in place of the plates after the Daytona 500 NASCAR will have the racecars fitted with tapered spacers which are pretty much the same thing but supposedly allow for better throttle response. The new package could lead to drivers able to pull off solo passes rather than needing to have three or four drivers line up to help them. And in a perfect world, which this one often is not, that could break up the packs a bit and result in fewer field-decimating wrecks. (A few of you opined that last week’s column was less than coherent. I apologize for that. That last sentence is what I was trying to get across.)

Since they started racing in NASCAR’s top divisions the brothers Busch, Kurt and Kyle, have been rather polarizing figures. They are both blessed with huge amounts of talent and have won a whole bunch of races. At times, they can be self-effacing and humorous while at others they come off as a bit prickly, boorish, self-righteous and self-centered. So be it. They are not the first pair of race car drivers Mr. Rogers might not care to invite to come play with his toy trains in the neighborhood.

Of the pair, Kyle Busch has enjoyed more success as far as victories in the top three touring series, while to date they are both tied at one championship apiece. (As far as Cup wins, Kyle has the edge with 50 wins to Kurt’s 30. They are perhaps going to mount a challenge on the Allisons, Bobby and Donnie, as far as the most wins by a pair of brothers where both of them won at least one race. Richard and Maurice Petty are the winningest brothers in NASCAR history with the King having 200 wins and Maurice none in 26 Cup starts. The Flocks – Tim, Fonty and Bob – won 59 races.)

Kurt, on the other hand, seems to have gotten a better handle on this whole “being a grown-up” lifestyle. It’s not like he had a lot of choice. I can think of no other Cup champion who has been released from or quit a top team due to conflicts and outbursts. Hell, Jack Roush fired Kurt Busch while he was still reigning Cup champion before that season even ended. Kurt got himself in a bit of a verbal altercation in Phoenix with member of Joe Arpaio’s sheriff’s department. (Not that Arpaio hasn’t become a bit of a controversial figure himself since then.) I recall Roush Racing released a rather terse statement that “as of noon today, Kurt Busch is no longer our headache,” a less-than-cordial sendoff, to be sure.

But it was Busch’s less-than-repeatable comments towards Dr. Jerry Punch, a beloved broadcaster to many fans, after mechanical issues at Homestead which earned Kurt his walking papers from Roger Penske’s team. That led to Busch enduring two winless seasons with what were then small teams unlikely to post victories. A lot of folks were flabbergasted, then when Gene Haas put Busch in an SHR Cup ride. But Busch repaid that confidence with a win at Martinsville in his sixth start for that team.

The next year, Busch found himself in hot water at the start of the following season as well. He wound up missing three races, including the Daytona 500 because of it although I will not recount the things he was accused of here. His accuser has been fairly much discredited since though the incident left an impression that both parties were insane.

At the end of the season, Busch will likely again hitch his wagon to a new horse, Chip Ganassi Racing, as he starts his 18th full-time season in the Cup Series.

Racers in general are passionate about what they do. It’s a stone cold fact no matter how good you are and which superteam you drive for, you’re going to lose more races than you win. For most of the Talladega race on Sunday Busch was living the dream, putting a stomping on the field. He led 108 laps. With three teammates serving as his wingmen and seemingly unwilling to mount a serious challenge for the top spot it looked like Busch had the win in the bank.

But what is it they say about enumerating your fowl before gestation? In a race scheduled for 188 laps, Busch led from lap 140 to lap 192. After running out of gas, he went on to finish 14th. Yeah, that’s going to leave a bruise. I think Ghandi would have been furious the way the end of that race played out.

After the race, Busch was clearly upset with a couple calls NASCAR had made. The old Kurt Busch would likely have launched into an epic temper tantrum rife with profanity, insults and perhaps a few threats. You know, the sort of meltdown that might have had another team official announcing he was no longer their headache. In fact, in the bad old days, Busch’s post-race meltdown might just have cost him whatever opportunity he’s in line for next year.

You didn’t have to be psychic to deduce Kurt Busch was annoyed at having lost a race he seemed to have in the bag most of the day. But he didn’t lose his temper and lash out at anyone. Instead, Busch brought up two very valid questions we’ll look at here.

Why did the final caution go on a lap longer than seemed necessary to clean up the wreck? Secondly, why wasn’t the caution flag not displayed on the final lap as the rulebook states it should have been?

In the first instance, I can’t supply a definitive answer. I’ve been on the bandwagon a long time hollering that NASCAR lets caution flags drag on far too long in many instances. Remember at a 2.66-mile track like Talladega a lap at caution flag speed, 60 MPH takes two minutes and 40 seconds to complete. We’re talking almost 14 minutes for a five-lap caution period. Yep, what seemed a fairly insignificant incident hit the pause button for that long while cars continued circulating around the track. In the recent past, we have watched NASCAR throw a “quickie caution” and allow the pack to return to racing even while the track is still slick with oil dry and even oil. We’ve seen similar-looking incidents that warranted a caution early in the race but not when it happened late in the event.

And, of course, we have seen NASCAR throw a red flag for an incident that might have warranted a caution earlier in the race. NASCAR is open about the fact they chose to throw those red flags because a majority of the field was either going to run out of gas under caution circling the track before pit road opened or shortly after racing resumed. The stated goal is usually that NASCAR wanted the fans to see what they’d paid to see: a good, hard race to the finish between the cars that had run the best all day. If that meant a guy who was running at the tail end of the lead lap or even a lap down would have won the race because he’d pitted later than everyone else and had plenty of gas to go the full distance, well, so be it.  Longtime fans will recall so called “Gordon” and “Earnhardt” cautions when a popular driver was in danger of running out of gas or going a lap down.

But in Sunday’s instance, I think the networks (in this case, NBC) had a dog in the fight. Most of the race was incident-free, at least by the standards of Talladega or Daytona. The presenting network had a certain amount of commercial minutes they had to air while the race was still going on. (Companies pay less for pre-race or post-race commercials. Even though it seemed viewers at home had already had to endure an extraordinary amount of commercials during green flag segments there was apparently some ad inventory that had to be aired.)

That one extra lap under caution gave them almost three minutes to air them. In retrospect, NASCAR probably should have just gone ahead and thrown a red flag if they had to to appease the networks. There was such a large percentage of the field on the verge of running out of gas.

On to Busch’s second point. NASCAR’s rulebook (you know, the one they won’t let fans see because they figure either the polysyllabic words will just confuse you or you might point out they misspelled them) states that in overtime, if a caution flies before the leaders take the white flag, they’ll rerack the field and try again. As often as necessary. But if those leaders take the white flag then the next one, whether it be the caution or the checkers officially ends the race. The field is frozen as of that “moment of caution.” Oh, I understand the sentiment of wanting to allow the fans to see a race end under green but that’s not how the rulebook says things will take place. NASCAR apparently isn’t willing to come out and admit that any rule can be changed on the fly “because we say so and that’s that.”

In this case, a crash happened on the final lap involving multiple cars. But the race stayed green all the way through its frenetic finish. Naturally, when questioned about the circumstances at the end of the race, NASCAR was a bit more diplomatic than that in explaining what happened.

“We were closely monitoring each car involved,” they said, “And were actively communicating with spotters and safety trucks in Turn 1. All cars were able to either roll off under their own power or signal they were clear. As always, we make every effort to end under green for our fans in the stands and at home, which we did.”

They actually had me going there for a minute until I focused in one the words “as always.” Well how can something be done “as always” if it’s contrary to the rulebook? Maybe they should just come clean in the rulebook and say “in the event of a late-race caution we’ll look at who is leading, whether their sponsor is also an official something of NASCAR and how popular that driver is with fans. We’re only going to get about three minutes on Sportscenter since we kicked ESPN to the curb and we want a carefully edited highlight video to make a race appear much more exciting than it did to the fans at home and in the stands who actually bothered to watch it.”

In this particular instance, that decision not to throw the caution on the last lap probably contributed to Kurt Busch running out of gas. Had he been able to slowly follow the pace car back to the Start/Finish line likely his Ford would have at least coasted across the finish line. If Busch were not to make the next round of the playoffs (unlikely but not impossible) and he misses the cut by 13 points or less (he finished 14th rather than first) a legitimate argument could be made that he was robbed of the opportunity to advance.

Back when the proposed overtime rules were being discussed, I was a proponent of the change. I’d prefer that the fans, especially the ones that make the huge financial sacrifice to travel to the track, an endangered species as of late, get to see a green flag finish.

But when considering such a rule I always felt it shouldn’t be used at Talladega or Daytona because of the style of racing at those two tracks. If you have a two-lap charge to the finish, you basically have a reenactment of the Oklahoma Land Rush, especially since it takes more than a full lap for a plate car to reach max speed.   A driver who is running 34th can easily win and a driver in first who led the most laps can easily finish 34th, if he’s lucky enough to finish at all. Advancing positions seems to take a driver who is willing to do something so damn stupid, reckless and unsportsmanlike his fellow competitors gasp and yield position rather than forcing the issue and getting into a huge smoking pig pile of a wreck. Richard Petty used to say that as a driver matured, he’d leave one foot between his car and the wall for each child he had. I think on average that a driver will lose one position on the last lap of a plate race for each kid he has.

Ironically, it was a finish at Talladega that was the major impetus for the overtime rule and it had nothing to do with a wreck. Instead, it was a perfect storm. On April 29th, 2007 the Cup stars ran at Talladega. Not only was Jeff Gordon tied with Dale Earnhardt on the list of all-time winners, but that date was in fact the late Earnhardt’s birthday and the fans in the stands at Talladega tend to be stalwart fans of the Earnhardt family. A wreck ensued on the penultimate lap of the race, but NASCAR didn’t throw the caution. They seemed to wait until just after Jeff Gordon, already not a beloved figure among Earnhardt fans, took the lead. The race was allowed to end under caution with Gordon leading the pack to the checkers.

The response in the grandstands was immediate and it was frightening. Seemingly hundreds if not thousands of beer cans were hurled at Gordon’s race-winning No. 24. Gordon, of course, was safely inside his car wearing a crash helmet and protective gear. The same couldn’t be said for the fans in the lower rows of the stands who wound up getting hit with beer cans that hadn’t been tossed with sufficient force to clear the fence. In what he admits wasn’t the brightest decision he ever made, Gordon took his victory lap, came back around and stopped his car in front of the stands to do the near obligatory post-race burnouts. The crowd did not react well. The fusillade of beer cans, trash, and whatever else “fans” could get their hands on (legend has it that included a prosthetic leg and a couple Canadian citizens who’d chosen to wear Gordon T-shirts to the race) intensified.

That wasn’t the reaction NASCAR of the networks were hoping for and the idea of overtime finishes to allow races to end under green was gestated.

Ultimately, it comes back to the same question. Is stock car racing an entertaining sport, or is NASCAR going for sporting entertainment? If you argue the former than any sport has to be officiated consistently by a rulebook. If you’re just trying to entertain folks and make sure all race finishes are memorable, if not fair, then you just have a mechanized form of WWE Wrestling.

I suppose in a perfect world (or at least one iteration thereof) Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola will be battling to the checkers during the final laps at Homestead for a title. And the race will finish under a green flag.

I have a face I can not show,

I make the rules up as I go,

Try and love me if you can,

Are you strong enough to be a fan?

-With all due apologies to Sheryl Crow-

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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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21 comments

  1. Indiana Jones: “I’m making this up as I go.”

  2. A much better column. Thx

  3. “It’s a stone cold fact no matter how good you are and which superteam you drive for, you’re going to lose more races than you win.”–Matt

    Not if your name is Richard Petty and it’s 1967. 🙂

  4. Odonnell testified under oath during the Mayfield trials that he worked for a “sports entertainment” league. Go look it up.

    Yes Nascar IS closer to WWE than it is a legit form of Motorsport. All other major sports leagues make their rulebooks available to fans…. Except the WWE … Because it’s “sports entertainment”. Hmmmmm…

  5. Kurt Busch was dishonestly using “concern” for Matt and Chase to cover for his self centered opinion. He didn’t care except that a caution would have likely given him a win.

  6. If any of you all think nascar cares a wit about what you think of the way they run races you all must be delusional

  7. That’s right, there was a race this past weekend! I forgot! Well actually, since the 2015 season ended, I think I’ve watched four races total, & only one this year, the Charlotte Roval, out of sheer curiosity. Ironic that it was at Charlotte, fifty years ago this month, that I attended my first NASCAR race. They’ve managed to totally kill off any interest I had in the sport over they years.

    One way they killed it is by doing exactly what you discussed in this column. But Matt, like me you’ve surely been around the sport long enough to know the old saying that the NASCAR rule book is written in pencil, haven’t you?

    Nothing new under the sun here. NASCAR is going to do whatever they’re going to do at any given race, rule book be damned, & if there’s a way to screw up a one car funeral, they’ll find it. No matter if it’s been Big Bill, Bill Jr, Brian, Jim France, or anyone else in the upper echelon of the organization, as long as it’s good for the Frances, that’s all that matters, no matter what it does to the sport.

  8. Great, great piece.

  9. The question NASCAR always asks in that situation. Who do you love?

  10. NASCAR has always relied on the EIRI clause in the rule book. Nascar rules are the rules Except In Rare Instances. They have always used that as their work around for when the rules don’t jibe with the intended results.

  11. Here’s the thing with that last lap wreck. NASCAR f’ed-up big time since they have historically thrown the caution when the incident appears to be a severe impact for a driver into the wall or another car. The 32 car hit the wall head on. There is zero acceptable answers for NASCAR not throwing a caution to get safety crews to that car ASAP. I do not care if they are in radio communication. They have already set the precedent on MANY occasions for this to be a race ending caution. I also was trying to figure out during the race how the uncontrolled tire caution could have possibly been that long but here’s the deal with that: caution comes out, lap to “get organized”, lap for lead lap cars to pit, lap for laps down cars to pit, lap to “get organized”, green flag (4 laps). NASCAR should have quickie cautioned that yellow for the tire.
    The one after that though is baffling to be 5 laps. TV network might be the excuse but still.

    If I was the SHR contingent I would have pitted on the caution at lap what 160ish and gotten tires and gas. Look at what Stenhouse was able to do without having to worry about running out. The TV guys were talking about others not pitting if SHR did at that caution. What they failed to mention or consider is what happened at the Stage 2 end where SHR finished the Stage 1-4 and pitted. They then got all back together and by what the 15th or so lap into the last “stage” were back out front.
    It would have been worth pitting as I believe most of the field would have also pitted so likely start towards the front of the field anyway. Even if much of the field does not pit, SHR would have been able to run full bore as though that did not pit would have still been saving gas so outcome would be considerably different.

    • Well said about the 32 car. It was like a Dale Sr. crash and we know how that ended. I find it funny Kurt couldn’t put a driver name with that car. It shows you that back markers are insignificant drivers. Like a click in high school.

  12. No doubt that NASCAR’s caution protocol should be standardized and adhered to. However, if a team/driver decides to roll the dice on fuel mileage and “shit” happens at the end of the race, and they (and we) know NASCAR does not adhere to any standard protocol, then they deserve whatever happens because they decided to take that risk and lost. Sure, they can whine after the fact and they may even be right in principle, but the fact is they made their own bed.
    With all that said, NASCAR should have black and white policies and rules.

  13. Five laps to clean up the minor wreck is downright competent compared to four laps to retrieve a tire resting in the grass against an inside wall (the caution before this one).