31 May 2011
Did they bend the rules for Dale Jr.?
Did NASCAR ignore their own safety rules by not throwing a caution following a restart accident at the end of the Coca-Cola 600 - just because Dale Earnhardt Jr. was in front?
The Coca-Cola 600 is NASCAR's longest race of the season, and when this year's went into green-white chequered overtime for the first time ever at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sunday night, it officially became NASCAR's longest race in history.
It looked for a moment that Dale Earnhardt Jr. was going to win the race when he sped away at the final restart, while behind him Kasey Kahne ran dry and caused a multiple-car collision that damaged Brad Keselowski's car and sent Jeff Burton spinning down to the infield area.
Under normal circumstances, such an accident would automatically trigger a new caution period, especially as the green-white chequered system meant that the field would be coming through that corner one more time, making it a safety issue if cars were stalled and stuck by the racetrack.
And yet there was no caution at that point on Sunday night. The race carried on and Earnhardt Jr. took the white flag, meaning one further lap to go come what may, with his legions of "Junior Nation" fans erupting ... right until the moment that the #88 ran dry and Earnhardt suddenly slowed, beaten to the line by six other cars led by Kevin Harvick.
A lot of fans, pundits and even drivers were left wondering what had happened to the yellow flag, and whether NASCAR officials had stayed their hand in not bringing out a caution because they knew it would be the end of Dale's hopes of ending a 104-race winless streak because of his empty gas tank: if the race had been reset to a second attempt at a green-chequered finish then he would have been forced to pit for a splash and dash and lost any chance of a win. So would eventual race winner Harvick, so perhaps it was second-placed David Ragan with most to be upset about on Monday morning.
"Ninety-nine percent of the time, the yellow would have flown," wrote Jill Erwin, a contributor to NASCAR.com. "The fact it didn't at the most key juncture of one of the sport's biggest races is a problem and sets up a need for NASCAR officials to be more stringent in applying their rules."
Many commentators commended NASCAR's decision to put an exciting green-flag finish ahead of a yellow-flag anti-climax, but this is exactly why the green-white chequered system was introduced: to give them three attempts at finishing under green and avoiding the end coming under an anti-climactic caution.
Ironically, NASCAR's handling of the situation ended up costing Earnhardt the win anyway: if they had brought out the yellow flags after Earnhardt had taken the white flag, then the green-white chequered system would have immediately declared the race with those positions - before Dale ran dry and dropped six positions.
But that seems like it was too much even for NASCAR to consider countenancing: having waited almost a full lap after the original crash so that the cars had taken the white flag, bringing in the yellows straight after to hand the win to Earnhardt there and then would have been far too blatant even for the most ardent of Junior fan, and would have devalued the win for him.
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