A wild finish to Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Talladega Superspeedway once again led to confusion concerning how the sanctioning body scores finishes on the sport’s two restrictor plate tracks.
A quick glance at the final lap of the race — in an event that was shortened due to impending darkness and that battled precipitation throughout the day — shows the three cars of Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano and Regan Smith racing to the start-finish line with the checkered flag in the air. Meanwhile, chaos ensues when a multi-car accident breaks out behind the trio as yellow caution lights flash.
NASCAR obviously made the right call to display the caution — and I rarely use the word “obviously.” Cars were wrecking at nearly 200 mph. I mean, how do you not wave the yellow flag?
However, confusion over who was flagged the winner reigned when NASCAR took time to review the final dash. Television commentators and print media on Twitter initially, and tentatively, believed Kahne beat Logano and Smith to the line by a nose. One NASCAR scoring monitor in the media center even showed Logano’s No. 22 car at the top of the scoring list. In post-race interviews, the drivers themselves admitted to racing to the start-finish line, believing that mark would determine the winner.
That wasn’t the case, though. In actuality, NASCAR scored Smith the victor for being in the lead when the caution was displayed. In essence, the field was frozen at that moment.
So what’s the beef? Seems clear-cut, right?
And the reason it’s not is because the race directors in the scoring tower seem to waver in their judgment each and every time the series visits Daytona and Talladega.
In Saturday’s instance, a massive wreck in the tri-oval on the final lap constituted a caution flag that, in NASCAR’s judgment, froze the field. Thus, racing to the start-finish line was negated; Smith was declared the winner for being in front at the second the yellow was displayed. However, in countless other cases the sanctioning body has thrown (or not thrown) a caution in a last-lap mess while allowing the leaders that were beyond the fray — and in the clear — to drag race back to the line where the winner was flagged.
The most notable instance? Look no further than the sport’s most prestigious race, the Daytona 500. In 2007, Mark Martin and Kevin Harvick raced through the tri-oval and back to the line as cars wrecked, in one case upside down and on fire, behind them. Martin’s initial reaction, as captured in audio on his in-car radio, was that he led at the time the melee unfolded. So he was the winner, right? NASCAR, however, did not freeze the field, flagging Harvick the winner at the start-finish line, instead.
Was this decision made because it was the Daytona 500? Because the sport’s most attentive audience watched by the millions on network television in a prime-time slot? Because it needed a “true” finish?
Hard to say. Though that should not factor into the decision-making process.
Admittedly, each race (and final-lap wreck) is different, with its own unique set of circumstances and perils. But the fact that the drivers — not to mention fans and media — are unclear as to what the ruling will be is a problem that dogs the sport’s decision makers. Further, the fact that on Saturday, Kahne, Logano and Smith ignored the caution lights and continued to race back to the start-finish line implies that it was their belief that that line — not a scoring loop or a frozen-field judgment call — would determine who went to Victory Lane. After all, how can they be expected to let off if the ruling could be any one of three alternatives? Cover all your bases, boys.
Few would argue that driver and fan safety is paramount. So why is it that safety is sometimes ignored in favor of a thrilling finish, while other times it prompts a “stoppage in play” as the leaders scream to the finish?
Who won and who lost is inconsequential in this, or any, instance. Consistency from NASCAR is all that is asked by fans, media and competitors. Unfortunately, the only consistency the sport has ever displayed is in its habitual subjectivity of how to score the most important lap of the race — the final one.
And that’s where confusion still reigns.