Officials in sports constantly find themselves in a “no-win” situation. At best, they’re invisible while making the right calls that don’t affect the game. At worst, they’re the center of attention, causing a controversy that detracts from the final outcome. The last thing you want as a sport is to be constantly talking about subjective calls.
Somehow, NASCAR has failed to understand this philosophy, a black cloud of uncertainty following too many finishes the last few years. Fontana was the latest example, a caution thrown with two laps left because of a piece of debris on the racetrack. It’s like calling a foul on a half-court, desperation shot as time expires in basketball, or pass interference on a Hail Mary to end an NFL game.
Some would argue driver safety was compromised without some sort of caution. Well, then how do you explain another call two minutes later? During a green-white-checkered finish, Greg Biffle spun and smashed the wall hard on the frontstretch. Easily, a caution could have been thrown in the interests of driver safety, similar to the last lap of February’s Daytona 500. Instead? The race finished under the green flag.
Let’s review: a shiny piece of metal barely visible was allowed to change the outcome of a race with two laps left. A car slamming into a SAFER Barrier wasn’t. It’s the type of confusion that results from those calls which left driver Kurt Busch saying “WWE” on the radio to his crew in the closing laps. These calls cost Busch the race, one where he led a race-high 65 circuits.
But there’s also one other important place it costs NASCAR: credibility. When fans can’t understand the direction or reasoning behind different calls, they get frustrated. If they don’t see the debris that caused a yellow flag, they claim conspiracy. They’re not talking about who won the race; they’re talking about what caused others to lose.
That’s a dangerous cliff, but it’s one NASCAR doesn’t mind walking down. Let’s hope it doesn’t bite them in the end.
Through The Gears we go…
FIRST GEAR: Keselowski Steals One
Brad Keselowski’s No. 2 Penske team has been a step behind for the first part of 2015. While teammate Joey Logano won the Daytona 500, Keselowski went without a top-5 finish during the season’s first four races. For most of Sunday, it was much of the same, leaving him far from the battles up front between Kevin Harvick, Busch, and Matt Kenseth.
But a series of late cautions bunched the field and gave him an opportunity. Pitting for fresh tires, a series of green-white-checkered finishes put the No. 2 car in perfect position to blow by the competition on restarts, deftly maneuvering through traffic to lead his only lap all day – the last one.
“You don't know how these things are going to work out,” Keselowski said of the frantic finish. “Sometimes you can restart fifth or sixth with four tires, you know, get caught up behind someone who doesn't have tires, end up 10th. You just don't know. It's picking the right lane and hoping that it comes together. For us it did at the end.”
Now, the Chase has come together for all of Team Penske in just five races. With Keselowski and Logano both locked in, they can spend the next five months preparing for another run at the title.
SECOND GEAR: Busch’s Bad Break
Make no mistake, Kurt Busch had the car to beat on Sunday. He was headed toward victory before two straight debris cautions caused green-white-checkered chaos that stole it away. But there’s plenty for Busch to take away from during a quality performance where he was the class of the field just two weeks into his return to the racetrack.
“I don’t know what we could have done different,” he said. “We just got pinned in by the yellows and the sequence at the end on which tires we needed to have to optimize how many laps were left. We had two tires; (Brad) Keselowski had four. We didn’t need that extra yellow at the end and I just got out muscled by Keselowski.”
Busch now sits inside the top 30 in points, already which means he’ll be Chase- eligible should the team snag a victory. In fact, he’s just 38 points behind 16th-place Carl Edwards, meaning it’s not inconceivable he could make the playoffs on points alone. Considering how much parts of Stewart-Haas Racing has struggled this season, that’s a great accomplishment.
THIRD GEAR: Joe Gibbs Racing Stumbles
Joe Gibbs Racing, if the season ended today would place all four of its racecars in the Chase. However, it’s small consolation when their drivers sit 13th through 16th in the point standings.
Some of that is due to poor luck. Matt Kenseth was a contender at Fontana until a broken axle sabotaged his chances late. Denny Hamlin was also running up front until a penalty for an uncontrolled tire left him fighting from the back of the pack. David Ragan spun out with a top-10 car. Carl Edwards got caught with a speeding penalty. And so on… but the bottom line is, they haven’t been getting the finishes, putting Toyota’s top team in a far more vulnerable position than they should be.
“There ain’t nobody in the field with a fast enough car to come back from any penalties,” Hamlin said. “We had one at the inopportune time and it just led to a bad finish.”
Hopefully for JGR, Lady Luck will swing their way soon.
FOURTH GEAR: Harvick Keeps On Humming
When the smoke cleared Sunday, Kevin Harvick was sitting second, his eighth straight top-2 finish. That leaves him three short of tying the modern era record of 11 straight set by Richard Petty in the mid-1970s.
Harvick’s been so consistent his lead in the standings is a whopping 28 points after just five events. Only Joey Logano and Martin Truex, Jr. sit within striking distance of the point lead. While the regular season title is meaningless under NASCAR’s new system, the way in which the defending champ has come out swinging is admirable.
The racing at Fontana, fantastic in recent years was disappointing Sunday. There were just 19 lead changes and the field under green was much more spread out. However, the fans’ enthusiasm hasn’t dampened as the track once again sold out their only Cup date… Dale Earnhardt Jr. rebounded for sixth one week after running dead last at Phoenix. He now has four top-10 finishes in the first five races with new crew chief Greg Ives… Martin Truex, Jr. has five top-10 finishes in a row to start the season. That equals the number of top 10s he got in a full schedule of 36 races driving for FRR last season.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.