Sunday’s (Oct. 4) NASCAR Cup Series playoff race was a typical Talladega Superspeedway thriller. But once the dust had settled on its photo finish, the YellaWood 500 looked more like the yellow line 500.
Following a chaotic last-lap ending, Denny Hamlin walked away with the checkered flag. Behind him, drivers who appeared to score top-10 finishes were issued post-race penalties instead. Several other drivers with strong closing moves, Hamlin included, avoided any negative post-race adjustments to their finishing positions. Their places in the running order stood despite being implicated in incidents that caused other drivers to get penalized.
Hamlin’s .086-second victory was a thrilling conclusion to a great race. But once the double yellow line rules came into play, the post-race commotion got confusing.
Unfortunately, that should come as no surprise. The double yellow line rule has been around for almost 20 years now, but the terms of its enforcement only seem to get murkier.
The rule initially came about following the death of Dale Earnhardt in the 2001 Daytona 500. Moving forward, NASCAR instituted a new policy for Talladega and Daytona International Speedway. A double yellow line was painted around the bottom edge of the track surface at both speedways. NASCAR declared that any driver who advanced their position below it would be penalized. Additionally, drivers who forced another racer below the line could face consequences at NASCAR’s discretion. The idea was to prevent drivers from racing on the apron and creating a potentially dangerous situation.
The problem was enforcing these rules evenly and consistently became a lot more complicated than NASCAR foresaw. Suppose a driver went below the double yellow line to start a pass but returned to the legal racing surface to complete it? What if a driver got forced below the double yellow line but forced his way back up onto the track at the expense of the first driver? And when, exactly, would NASCAR enforce the stipulation about penalizing a driver who forced someone else below the line? What could drivers get away with and what would draw a black flag?
NASCAR has never sufficiently answered these questions. As a result, the sanctioning body has made a mess of what started out as a well-intentioned rule.
The last lap of Sunday’s race highlights just how tricky the enforcement of the double yellow line rule can be. Matt DiBenedetto led through turns 3 and 4, followed by Erik Jones, Chris Buescher, William Byron and Hamlin. Entering turn 4, Byron slipped past Buescher and Jones, then tried to race by DiBenedetto down low. DiBenedetto came down to block, causing the Nos. 21 and 24 to make contact, which pushed Byron below the yellow line to the apron.
Jones and Buescher, meanwhile, were side by side as well in the low lanes trying to get a tow from Byron. Hamlin caught all four drivers with a huge run and ducked below the double yellow line to avoid running into Buescher. Once below the line, Hamlin stayed there until he pulled even with DiBenedetto and Byron. A timely push from Ty Dillon allowed Hamlin to beat DiBenedetto to the finish line by .023 seconds.
So, in the above scenario, who violated the rules? In NASCAR’s determination, DiBenedetto forced Byron below the line, so the No. 21 was penalized. In addition, Chase Elliott, who was running just behind this group, received a penalty for passing Buescher below the line in the tri-oval. On the other hand, NASCAR deemed that Hamlin was forced below the yellow line by Buescher, so there was no penalty to the No. 11. Buescher was not penalized, either.
Confused? Me too. And, for that matter, so was NASCAR. About an hour after the race concluded, Elliott’s penalty was rescinded. Instead, NASCAR then issued a penalty to Buescher after all for forcing Elliott below the yellow line.
Were any of NASCAR’s decisions correct? The call against DiBenedetto made sense given how abruptly he pushed Byron below the line. That’s not anything malicious on DiBenedetto’s part, just typical superspeedway racing. It is also a clear violation of the rules.
But the rest of NASCAR’s penalties, or lack thereof, call their ability to consistently enforce the double yellow line rule into question. Here’s what NASCAR Vice President of Competition Scott Miller had to say about the penalty originally issued to Elliott.
“On the No. 9, he obviously just pulled out and passed underneath the yellow line,” Miller said. “I think all of it was, from our vantage point, I think fairly clear cut.”
If the penalty against Elliott was “fairly clear cut,” why did it get reversed? Furthermore, what exactly did the No. 17 do to warrant a penalty instead? As of this writing, it remains unclear.
Yet the biggest head-scratcher here is how Hamlin, the race winner, avoided a penalty. In the replay of the last lap, Hamlin appears to go below the double yellow line before reaching Buescher’s quarterpanel. As the No. 17 was blocking his lane, Hamlin had three choices: try to swing high, run into the back of Buescher, or go below the yellow line to pass him. Hamlin chose the third option. In doing so, it allowed this year’s Daytona 500 winner to make the decisive pass and probably avoid turning the No. 17.
But what happened to Hamlin is not the same thing as getting forced below the double yellow line. Unlike Byron, who got pushed below the line by DiBenedetto, Hamlin had a choice. What’s more, Hamlin stayed underneath the line until he passed not only Buescher but Byron, DiBenedetto and Jones.
It is indisputable that Hamlin advanced his position below the double yellow line. Even if he was on the apron to avoid hitting Buescher, is it still not against the rules to pass drivers who did not force you below the line? NASCAR has been far less lenient with this rule in the past. At Talladega in 2008, Regan Smith could have argued that he was trying to avoid a last lap crash with Tony Stewart. But Smith wound up as the one penalized for passing Stewart below the line, despite a good bit of evidence that Stewart forced Smith down in the first place.
A huge no call on Hamlin, along with “clear cut” penalties that get overturned, is further evidence that NASCAR needs to scrap the double yellow line rule. While driver safety should be of the utmost importance to the sanctioning body, this sport has come a long way in 20 years. Several redesigns of the cars, along with the implementation of SAFER barriers, have prevented countless more injuries than an out-of-bounds line. For that matter, NASCAR has still never explained how confining the drivers to a tighter space is supposed to prevent more crashes.
But the biggest reason to get rid of this rule is NASCAR simply cannot enforce it consistently. What Hamlin did on Sunday was not significantly different than what Smith did 12 years ago, but only Smith got a penalty. Not to mention that the Buescher/Elliott reversal looks incredibly silly. With wins and championships on the line, NASCAR cannot let judgment calls and muddled rules impact the finishes of these races.
When Miller and his associates can’t even figure out who should get penalized according to their own rules, it is time to take a red pen to this yellow line rule.