By admin | October 5, 2008
By Richard Allen
For the second time in just over a year the car to cross the finish line first did not win a NASCAR Sprint Cup race.
Sunday’s Amp Energy 500 at the Talladega Superspeedway was won by Tony Stewart despite the fact that Regan Smith crossed the finish line ahead of him. Last year, Greg Biffle was allowed to go to victory lane at the Kansas Speedway although he did not cross the finish line first. However, that race finished under caution, which could allow for some leeway when Biffle allegedly slowed down to celebrate. Drivers were supposed to be going slowly under caution anyway.
The Amp Energy 500 did not finish under caution. Drivers were running at full speed when they went under the checkered flag. NASCAR officials ruled that a last lap pass made by Smith was illegal because he steered his car beneath the yellow “out of bounds” line to complete the maneuver.
For some time, NASCAR has not allowed drivers to move under the yellow line which encircles the inner part of the two biggest speedways, Daytona and Talladega. The sanctioning body has determined that cars diving below that yellow line had led to numerous accidents and deemed the move unsafe and illegal. Drivers have been warned on those tracks to not advance their position to the left of that line. To do so runs the risk of incurring a penalty.
However, NASCAR has allowed for some interpretation when a driver has been forced under the line.
As is so often the case, NASCAR’s “interpretation” has created confusion and has opened the door for criticism.
I am neither a driver nor a crew chief so I have never attended a driver’s meeting. However, I have heard drivers say that they are often told the last lap of a race may be open to more leniency than other laps. Regan Smith was certainly under that impression.
“I should be out there doing burnouts,” he said in a post race interview. “I just did what we’ve been told is allowed on the last lap.”
As the cars raced through the tri-oval for the final time Smith made his move to the low side and it did appear as though Stewart moved over to force him below the line. Smith continued on with his maneuver and beat Stewart to the finish line.
By not being clear ahead of time NASCAR opened the door for the criticism they so often receive. That is, they make up the rules as they go.
If the rule is no passing below the yellow line, then that is the rule, plain and simple. However, if drivers are told in their pre-race meeting that the last lap is different, then the last lap is different.
Evidence that Smith at least had room for a grievance occurred twice during the weekend. In Saturday’s Craftsman Truck Series race there was a similar type finish in that a number of trucks were barreling toward the finish line. The SpeedTV announcers declared as the trucks headed for the line that, “You can go below the yellow line on the last lap”. I suspect they said that because they had been told just that by someone or have heard it directly themselves.
Again, on Sunday as the cars came to the finish line ABC commentator Andy Petree made a similar declaration. It would seem unlikely that two different announcers would make virtually the same statement if they did not have reason to believe it were true.
Perhaps the worst statement of all came from fellow ABC announcer Jerry Punch when he said, “We’re looking to the booth next door to see what NASCAR is going to decide.” That statement makes it sound as if NASCAR picks and chooses who it wants to win. There could be no worse condemnation of a major sports organization.
If there is interpretation involved, one has to wonder what the call would have been if the veteran had passed the rookie in the same way? What if instead of Regan Smith the other driver involved had been Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson?
Granted, there are judgment calls made in every sport. Perhaps I pay more attention to the ones made in NASCAR because it is my favorite sport, but it seems as though the calls they make always create storms of controversy.
At best, NASCAR has not been clear in expressing its intent for how the last lap of a race is to be conducted on these tracks. At worst, NASCAR does indeed pick and choose how it interprets the rules based on who is involved.
I am not going to accuse NASCAR of the later because to do so would be a very serious charge that should only be made with more investigation and evidence than could have been found in the short time since the end of the Amp Energy 500. However, I am going to say that NASCAR must be more clear because there was obviously confusion among the competitors and the people reporting the event.
As I said before, I have never attended a NASCAR driver’s meeting so I am not able to definitively say what drivers have been told regarding last lap procedures on restrictor plate tracks. However, based on the evidence of the past weekend I believe NASCAR has made another judgment call that has opened a door for the sanctioning body to be criticized, and rightfully so.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association. His weekly column appears in The Mountain Press every Wednesday.
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