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Did they bend the rules for Dale Jr.?

31 May 2011

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.

Whether NASCAR are Junior fans or not, the way it played out without a caution was perfect for TV ratings and stole headlines even from the dramatic end to the Indianapolis 500 a few hours earlier. Either they would get a hugely popular Earnhardt victory (which would wipe the Indy 500 off the back pages on Monday in the stockcar nation heartland) or else they got what actually transpired - last corner heartbreak and high drama as Harvick swept past to steal the win.

Either way, in terms of marketing it was a great success for NASCAR - which demonstrates a long-standing tension in motorsport: whether to err on the side of safety, or of entertainment.

It's not just NASCAR that wrestles with this balance of course: the officials at Indianapolis were also criticised for not bringing out the yellow flag the moment JR Hildebrand crashed on the last corner of the race, but instead hesitated and allowed Dan Wheldon to pass by the wreck at high speed before bringing out the caution with the chequered flag.

If the yellow had come out straight away - as would happen at any other time in the race- then Panther may have had grounds to challenge the race result based on Wheldon having overtaken Hildebrand's wrecked but still moving car under yellow which could have been breaking the rules. Instead, the race steward opted to keep the track green for several crucial seconds despite Wheldon having to pass by a potentially dangerous accident site.

The Indy 500 caution delay was a matter of seconds; the Coca-Cola 600 was almost two whole laps. And that coming when NASCAR are notoriously quick to bring out a yellow at the drop of a single piece of debris on the track even when TV cameras can't find anything, coincidentally just when it's convenient to close up the field and make for an exciting restart at a key moment of the race.

"A reputation for phantom debris cautions during boring stretches works against NASCAR here," agreed Associated Press writer Jenna Fryer. "It doesn't help, either, that Harvick himself questioned a debris call earlier in the race when he grumbled over his radio he didn't see anything on the track and that NASCAR makes those calls to benefit the chosen ones."

It all gives rise to the suggestion that NASCAR race/safety directors are becoming rather too interchangeable with entertainment and TV directors, trying to choreograph the night's action and storylines to the best advantage for fan consumption rather than looking out for the health and safety of the competitors.

"The pressure is on," NASCAR President Mike Helton had acknowledged an hour before the race, conceding that the previous week's All-Star Race at the same venue had been a bit of a snooze-fest. "Hope tonight is good." No undue pressure there from the boss, then.

But no one is perfect, a decision has to be made, and often the situation required that decision to be made in split-seconds - right or wrong.

"The one thing I have learned over the last two or three weeks is there has to be a judge," race winner Kevin Harvick said. "There has to be somebody making those decisions, and there has to be somebody who's going to say, 'Yep, there's debris on the track. I see it and there it is.' There has to be somebody making the calls, and I'm glad I don't have to make them."

And for all that armchair experts like to think otherwise, they probably wouldn't like it or fare any better than the NASCAR officials on duty in the hot-seat on Sunday night when it came down to the wire.


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