Unlike other sports in North America, the rulebook that governs NASCAR racing is a tightly guarded secret available only to a select group within the sport. The vast majority of the rulebook deals with technical aspects such as templates, weight, and body positioning. Surprisingly, there are few rules that deal with the actual running of the event. And therein lies the problem.
The Busch Series and Winston Cup races at Texas Motor Speedway saw NASCAR make two rulings that seemingly baffled the most astute followers of the sport. In the latter stages of the Busch race, Brian Vickers had the lead of the event as the field came to a restart. Due to drivers being on the tail end of the lead lap, Vickers did not bring the field to the flag. He lined up directly behind Chad Blount, the last car on the lead lap. As the green flag waved, Blount spun his rear tires coming up through the gears. He moved to the high side of the track to avoid getting hit from behind. Vickers moved low but was behind Blount as the cars passed the start-finish line. Heading into turn one, Vickers completed the pass. One lap later the black flag was displayed for Vickers. NASCAR had deemed that Vickers had passed to the left before the start-finish line as outlined in the rulebook. However, video replays clearly showed that Vickers was behind Blount when the cars crossed the line. Nevertheless, NASCAR President Mike Helton said that Vickers "was in the act" of passing before the line. Hence, he was given a penalty stop and was effectively eliminated from contention for the win. Helton said that Vickers had enough space to back off and drop back in line. While no doubt true in theory, it was simply impractical. Backing off would have created a bottleneck behind him resulting in a chaotic situation entering turn one. Vickers adhered to the penalty stop and was later caught up in a multi-car wreck.
NASCAR had set a precedent that the "act of passing" was the same as "making the pass" in terms of penalties. The controversial moment garnered some attention in the Winston Cup garage area on Sunday morning. NASCAR had clearly laid out their definition of the rule in regard to restarts. However, later that day, another ruling by NASCAR would have drivers shaking their heads in disbelief.
Matt Kenseth had the lead of the race when the caution flag came out on lap 168. Exiting turn four, Kenseth slowed dramatically to allow his Roush Racing teammate Kurt Busch to pass him and get back on the lead lap. He also wanted to allow Roush-affiliated driver Ricky Rudd to make up a lap. Jeff Gordon, who was running behind Kenseth in second place, stayed in the throttle to keep Busch and Rudd one lap down. Gordon knew that Busch was a primary contender for the Winston Cup title and allowing him back on the lead would be like handing him free positions in the race. As such, he passed Kenseth in the tri-oval for the lead and in doing so kept Busch and Rudd one lap down.
There is a long standing unwritten rule in NASCAR where drivers on the lead lap have agreed not to race back to the caution flag unless it is in the extreme late stages of a race. The Texas race had not yet reached the halfway point. While Gordon did violate the "gentleman's agreement" between drivers, NASCAR allows drivers to race back to the caution flag. That is, until Sunday in Texas.
As Gordon pulled behind the pace car, NASCAR informed his crew that he should line up behind Kenseth. His pass for the lead was nullified. Furthermore, since Busch and Rudd had passed Kenseth on the track, both drivers were allowed back on the lead lap. Though not in the rulebook, NASCAR was seemingly exercising its right to alter a race at its choosing.
While it was clear that Kenseth was intentionally slowing to allow his teammate to get a lap back, it has set a dangerous precedent for the sanctioning body. Let's suppose Kenseth had a problem with his car at the time. For argument's sake, we'll say that he felt that his right front tire was flat and slowed up with five laps remaining in the race as the caution waved. The second place driver would then pass him as the cars took the caution flag. If NASCAR wants to be consistent, they would nullify the pass and give the lead back to Kenseth. He would limp around under caution and win the race with a flat tire, even though he was passed for the lead coming to the caution flag. Of course, NASCAR has not made consistency a priority over its 55-year history. Why start now?
When asked to explain the incident after the race, Gordon was bewildered. "I don't think that just because the leader wants to let the guys have a lap back, doesn't mean that everybody else behind him has to let them have a lap back," he said. "I think it's his choice whether he wants to let them have a lap back or not. If he doesn't, then the next guy in line can choose. I did. I was the leader when I crossed the line. I didn't think there was any reason to let those guys have the lap back. We are racing those guys not only for a win but for a championship and I just didn't think there was any reason for me to let them have a lap back."
Though not in the rulebook, NASCAR was enforcing an unwritten rule between the drivers. "For NASCAR to put those guys back on the lead lap or whatever lap it was that we were on, that just blows me away, and I don't understand it," Gordon said. "Somebody is going to have to explain it to me from here on out and as soon as they explain it to me, I'll know what the rule is." Sorry Jeff, but there is no valid explanation since there is no official rule to begin with.
Other series of racing, such as the CART, IRL, and ARCA, do not allow drivers to race back to the caution flag. Scoring reverts to the previously completed lap. While it does open the door for lapped cars to get a lap back and remain competitive, the pitfalls can be severe. Racing full throttle through an accident scene is a perilous task. It is not uncommon to witness a second incident due to drivers racing back to a caution flag.
"I don't know why we don't invert back to the last lap anyway," Gordon said. "It's dangerous. I don't agree with it to begin with, but who am I to say how that should be handled?" Well, despite NASCAR's claims, certain drivers do have greater pull with the sanctioning body. In the 90's when NASCAR was considering new rules or policies, Bill France would often ask Dale Earnhardt for his opinion. And make no mistake about it, Earnhardt's views carried a large amount of weight in Daytona Beach. Earnhardt acted as the unofficial liaison between the drivers and the sanctioning body. After his death in 2001, there was a large chasm in the sport. Jeff Gordon's opinion holds more weight than he probably thinks it does. After all, there's a big difference between Jeff Gordon and the other 42 drivers on the track. For starters, he's won the most NASCAR races among active drivers. But more than that, it's simply a matter of the respect that comes with four Winston Cup titles.
"I've done racing where the caution comes out, you stop races," Gordon said. "If you invert back to the last lap and start scoring from there, but that was when cautions didn't count, so it's not my rule. It's their rule and I'm going to race it, but that doesn't mean I'm going to like it, you know, and I don't like it, because, you know, I've seen situations that were very dangerous and plus you see these guys sometimes that are a lap down doing things that, you know, are very questionable where the positions they're putting the race car in, putting a lot of people in jeopardy just to get the lap back to get it back, and as long as that's the rule you're going to see that happen."
Gordon needs only to look at past experience for the perils of racing back to a caution flag. At Texas in 1997, Ernie Irvan was racing back to the caution flag to get a lap back. Irvan slammed into the rear of Greg Sacks who had spun on the frontstretch. Gordon slowed dramatically but was unable to avoid Irvan's wrecked car. Though there were no serious injuries, he was taken out of contention due to drivers racing back to the caution flag.
With NASCAR racing becoming one of the most popular sports in the United States, it is essential that the rules of sport be clearly outlined. For the sanctioning body to enforce an unwritten rule between competitors simply oversteps their bounds. Their excuse for not making the rulebook public is that it contains trade secrets. Actually, it's probably due to the "make up rules as situations warrant" philosophy that has pervaded in NASCAR since its infancy. Quite frankly, making the rulebook public would help to add a degree of legitimacy and professionalism to the sport.
NASCAR needs to address its policy about drivers racing back to the caution flag. You either race back, or you don't. As it stands right now, drivers are allowed to race back to the caution flag. To purposely manipulate the standings of a race based on an "unwritten rule" is absolutely ridiculous. It was, after all, Wrestlemania weekend. Though nobody lept out of the crowd to hit race winner Ryan Newman with a steel pipe. Regardless, it was still a case of complete and utter nonsense. Of course, World Wrestling Entertainment boss Vince McMahon admits that his product is staged drama. Whereas the drama in NASCAR racing is real... or so it would appear.
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