The odds didn’t favor a green-white-checker restart ending under caution at Talladega on Sunday.
In the 23 previous races with the GWC rule in effect in the Sprint Cup Series, 10 Talladega races had gone into overtime. And only two of those races had more than one two-lap sprint to the finish. It seemed very likely that Sunday’s race was going to either finish at 500 miles or with one attempt at a two-lap sprint.
Well, until NASCAR jinxed the finish of Sunday’s race with the announcement that green-white-checker finishes would be limited to one on Sunday. The reasons for the rule seemed unclear. Given the data presented above, multiple GWC finishes at Talladega haven’t been widespread. And Austin Dillon’s scary crash at Daytona in July came after the race had officially finished.
OK, so jinx isn’t the right word. With history as our guide, the odds still looked good. But sure enough, NASCAR’s new rule came into play on Sunday. And what unfolded was sheer madness.
The ending of the race was set up by Jamie McMurray’s blown engine. It seemed reasonable that NASCAR officials could have halted the race with a red flag to clean up the track and try to finish the race in regulation. Instead, a long caution flag let the laps tick off. Greg Biffle, a non-Chase driver in position to potentially steal a win on fuel mileage, was forced to pit.
There would be one GWC attempt. OK, make that two. As NASCAR tried to start the race for the final time, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Larson spun before the field hit the start/finish line. Since the penultimate lap hadn’t started, NASCAR ruled it was not an attempt.
The logic is understandable. The lap wasn’t officially started under green. But audio from team channels revealed a lot of flabbergasted teams. Some felt that since NASCAR had, well, attempted to start the race, it counted as the attempt. Perhaps NASCAR hadn’t explained the scenario to its teams well enough.
We should have known that NASCAR’s new rule would come in to play despite strong evidence that it wouldn’t The sport, which can be making news for rules-related discussions as often as it does for its action on the track, has a tendency to self-inflict chaos even when it means well.
This was one of those times. Drivers supported the one-GWC rule for obvious reassons. It cut down the opportunities to crash. But, when put into action, also strongly raised the possibility of NASCAR being forced to determine not only the winner of the race but the eight drivers that moved on to the next round of the Chase via video monitoring and frame-by-frame deduction.
The sport has become all about extracting every ounce of “excitement” and “entertainment” from its on-track product suddenly put itself in its officials hands inside the scoring tower to properly sort out the madness it had helped create below. Is any event exciting and entertaining when it comes down to the decisions of those ruling it? Especially one that has much larger implications than itself?
As a result, NASCAR spent over an hour trying to figure out the official results of the race instead of simply seeing the order of who crossed the finish line and reprinting it. And had it made the decision to throw the caution flag a split second later, Dale Earnhardt Jr. would have been in victory lane and the next round of the Chase.
Instead, Joey Logano was ruled to have been ahead when the caution flag flew. The scenario meant that the sport dodged a barrage of Junior-favoring conspiracy theories in the weeks ahead. A bright spot for the credibility of NASCAR amongst its (non-Junior) fans? Sure. But the mere mention of this idea means that NASCAR’s decision once again had unintended consequences.
Will this rule extend to Daytona and Talladega in 2016? Who knows. Group qualifying at restrictor plate tracks looked like a great idea in theory until it was hot garbage in reality.
If it does, it’ll likely be tweaked as NASCAR learns from what happened on Sunday. But it doesn’t erase the dozens of “what-if?” scenarios that fans and drivers will ask themselves in the upcoming weeks. There’s no guarantee that two more restarts would have gotten the race finished under green, but you can bet a bunch of people are wondering how they’d have played out had NASCAR not created a new rule that’s still looking for a good explanation.
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