Last Sunday (Oct. 20) at Kansas Speedway in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, a few late cautions completely altered the playoff picture and royally screwed Brad Keselowski in the process.
This chain of events started on lap 254 of 267, when the caution flag flew for debris. Ryan Blaney had a tire go down and left a trail of debris on the apron of the track. I disagree with the yellow flag waving for debris that isn’t on the racing surface.
NASCAR will sometimes throw cautions in these situations, but sometimes it doesn’t — it’s completely random. For example, why didn’t the caution come out in the Southern 500 this year when Kyle Busch was slamming the wall every turn of the final laps due to a flat tire? And yet Blaney tapping the wall once and having his tire explode when he’s already off the racing surface warrants a caution?
Prior to the caution, all Keselowski had to do was finish right where he was and he would’ve advanced to the Round of 8. He was three points ahead of Chase Elliott, and both seemed stuck where they were. But the caution bunched the field back up, giving Elliott the opportunity to gain positions and Keselowski the chance to lose them.
And that’s exactly what happened. Elliott worked his way up to second on the next run while Keselowski lost ground, putting Elliott two points ahead.
After six laps of racing, the yellow flag flew again, as Bubba Wallace‘s tire came completely off of the car and the No. 43 spun into Matt Tifft. This type of incident should absolutely draw a caution every single time it happens — there were two wrecked racecars, debris and a free-range tire that needed to be removed. This caution gave Keselowski another chance, but this wreck would have happened whether the Blaney caution came out or not because Wallace did not pit during that caution.
During this caution, Keselowski’s pit crew gained him three spots on pit road, getting him back one point above Elliott. That caution led the race to go into overtime, and the race finally restarted on lap 270. Elliott fell to third, while Keselowski gained several spots, adding to his point lead over Elliott.
But before the field took the white flag, the caution came out yet again. This time it was for a major pileup involving Daniel Suarez, Austin Dillon, Joey Logano, Daniel Hemric and Keselowski, though the No. 2 only sustained slight damage and kept going. The caution lights turned on roughly half a car length before leader Denny Hamlin took the white flag, forcing the race into more overtime. Had Hamlin been past the line when the caution lights turned on, the race would have been over.
The incident absolutely should have drawn a caution, but the problem is the caution flag flew before the wreck had fully happened. The wreck occurred in the middle of the pack on turn 4’s exit, meaning there was only a fraction of a second for the caution lights to turn on before Hamlin got to the line.
"I'm glad it all worked out."
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) October 21, 2019
“They were ready, ready to press that thing,” Hamlin said to NBC about the caution coming out before he got to the line.
NBC broadcaster and semi-retired driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. had the same sentiment.
“I immediately thought in my mind like, ‘How in the hell did they not get the white?’ he said on his podcast. “Frickin’ impossible … Maybe there’s some automated technology that throws that light on. That’s the only way I can explain it. That’s the only way I can explain it. I cannot see how the human hand and eye was fast enough to beat Denny Hamlin to the finish line. … I don’t know how in the hell they got that light on that fast. Ain’t no damn way. Something’s fishy.”
When the caution came out, Keselowski was somewhere between three and five points ahead of Elliott, meaning he would have advanced had the race ended.
This is the quickest caution in NASCAR history. The light is on the moment Suarez hits the wall.
(Manually scroll it in slow-motion and you’ll see what I mean) https://t.co/fQyYrfpOWb
— Nick Bromberg (@NickBromberg) October 20, 2019
Normally, a wreck fully plays out before the caution flag flies. In some overtime situations, NASCAR has even waited to see if the cars involved can get back going so the race can stay green. In this instance, Suarez and Hemric had just hit the wall and the light was already on. I don’t entirely know how NASCAR’s caution system works, but if there’s a button that is pushed, then whoever pushed it had their finger hovering over the button just waiting for something to happen. Had there been any hesitation, Hamlin would have reached the line and ended the race. In fact, I’m surprised the caution lights didn’t turn on and off several times in that moment, because I’m picturing someone in race control pounding the button repeatedly like a video game controller and praying they got it off fast enough.
This race wasn’t exactly the most riveting prior to the final few cautions, so it needed something to spice it up. It brings back memories of the fall 2017 Richmond Raceway race when Matt Kenseth got on the brakes a little too hard and locked them up but didn’t spin or anything. Yet race control threw a caution immediately because it saw some tire smoke in a race that was fairly boring up until that point. At the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL race this year, cautions would fly at some points when someone spun and wouldn’t on other spins — it seemed to depend on whether or not the field was spread out and the race needed some action. The hope with cautions like these is to bunch the field back up and manufacture some action and drama.
I love both of those things in a race, but it just feels cheapened when it’s forced.
Well, NASCAR got plenty of manufactured drama out of Sunday’s ordeal. Elliott got up on the wheel and worked his way up to second on the final restart, while Keselowski had the worst restart of his life and lost several spots. This put Elliott into the Round of 8 and Keselowski out.
I’m not saying Elliott cheated or did anything wrong — he drove an incredible last few laps and did what he had to do. I’m not saying NASCAR rigged it for its most popular driver to advance over a polarizing driver, but it certainly helped him out. The race should have been over at that point, but NASCAR tried to manufacture drama. Sure, Keselowski should have done better on the final restart, but that final restart should have never happened. You can’t fault a driver for failing in a portion of a race that shouldn’t have existed.
If this had happened to Jeff Gordon instead of Keselowski, he might even be added to the Round of 8 as the ninth driver for this whole ordeal. NASCAR set a precedent with the 2013 Richmond controversies when Gordon was added to the playoffs because a Ford teammate gave Joey Logano the one position he needed to beat out Gordon. Because apparently no Chevrolet teammate ever pulled over and let Gordon have a position when he was points racing, but that’s a whole other debate.
But unfortunately, to add Keselowski back into the Round of 8 would be for the governing body to admit that there was some funny business going on this past weekend in that final caution. There’s a better chance of winning the lottery every day for the rest of your life.
NASCAR should be glad that Hamlin still won the race, because had he not then he would have been screwed out of five playoff points that he will use in this next round. Had that happened and Hamlin missed the Championship 4 by less than five points, he would have been screwed out of a bid for the championship just because of manufactured drama.
It won’t right the wrong on Keselowski, but hopefully NASCAR learns from this instance and gets out of its own way. It was a huge turnoff to fans in the 2000s when phantom debris cautions would come up that happened to manufacture drama or help out certain popular drivers in need of a break. There got to be so many of these that Jayski started keeping track of it. It seemed like NASCAR had finally quit getting involved in the flow of races — at least stages are planned for — but then this race happens.
Hopefully it was a one-race deal. But I will certainly keep a close eye on how the judgment calls affect the races and help or hurt the No. 9 team going forward, and I hope everyone else will do the same.