Carl Edwards wins at Bristol
Sunday's Sprint Cup Series race at Bristol Motor Racing had been running hard to beat the next wave of rain showers due to hit the area. It almost made it, and would have done so if not for a final caution that came out on lap 497, after which it proved impossible to restart the race before the rain arrived.
The question that everyone was left puzzling over on the night was: why exactly had that final yellow come out anyway? There was nothing happening out on the track to merit throwing a caution that anyone could see.
"It appears that in the flag stand one of the flag people had leaned on the switch that is the manual override for the caution lights," revealed a somewhat embarrassed Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition and racing development.
"It appears that in, not all, but most of the flag stands have a manual override for the caution lights," he elaborated. "Due to the weather and due to other things, [the override] wasn't secured properly and the flag person leaned against the switch and turned the caution lights on.
"When the people in the flag stand saw that the caution lights were illuminated and they did not have the flag out, they threw the flag out," he continued. "Then we realised what happened. We were scanning cars and spotters, and there's some of us in the tower that only heard it after the teams were talking about it because we were looking at other things around the racetrack.
"We tried to turn them off, and we realized that the override switch was on and they were hung on caution," he added. "It was a stupid error."
Not even those in the flag stand itself had any idea what had happened: "They didn't know," admitted Pemberton. "There's two people in the stand and a photographer at the end of the race and as you can only imagine as the day went on and the different scenarios of getting up and down and they were probably pretty cold standing up there all day long, they had bundles of clothes on so I can only sympathize with the conditions that they were trying to deal with today."
But how much had the phantom caution affected the race outcome? Hardly at all, Pemberton insisted.
"I don't know if these numbers mean anything to you," he said, referring to synchronised timecodes on the video footage. "It was 21:23:46:33 was the time that the switch was thrown manually. It was 21:23:52:20 when the flag man threw the flag. And then the time of day was 21:24:12:995 when we froze the field.
"We went back, and when you look at the rundown, the only cars that had to change positions is the #5 was behind the #24, so it was #11-#24-#5," he said. "That's the only thing we had to change. And that's the freeze; the freeze was roughly 20 seconds after the manual caution flag itself was thrown, and the caution flag itself was six seconds after the switch was leaned on and turned. So no positions were changed during that time, other than the #5."
In the end, the fact that the rain came down seconds later and ruled out a green-white-chequered restart - which could have cost Carl Edwards his race win, despite the fact that he had been running over two seconds ahead of the field before the phantom caution - probably saved even more embarrassment and potentially serious controversy for the track officials.
"There's two very happy people in this room right now, and the next one will be up here in a second when you turn me loose," agreed a relieved Pemberton, referring to race winner Carl Edwards who was next up to meet the journalists in the BMS media centre.
"I did not want to see that caution," Edwards concurred. "Concern was not a strong enough word. So, I'm glad the rain came. I think there were some higher powers at work there.
"For Robin and NASCAR to come up here and explain exactly what happened immediately after the race and just put it out there that, hey, it was a mistake and it was inadvertent, I think that says a lot about the state of the leadership of our sport," added Edwards.
But it had been a narrow escape this time, and Pemberton agreed that a similar mishap couldn't be allowed to happen again in the future.
"We learn a lot of lessons, and when we learn a lesson like this we'll go in and further investigate some things," he said. "As you know, all the electronics that we've had and have installed in the trailers for freeze the field and all these other things [but] you still have to integrate into the track facilities.
"There's probably some things that we needed to do to better secure that area where the manual override is on the lights," he summed up.
Carl Edwards wins at Bristol