When it comes to the yellow flag, NASCAR has, for the most part, acted on the side of safety – which, incidentally, is exactly what it should do.
Even with that, many have, and likely always will, question NASCAR’s inconsistency when it comes to making the calls.
It seems to some that the officials in the tower are quick to call for the yellow flag when there is a small piece of debris on the track.
Yet, sometimes even after a multi-car wreck, the race goes on under green – which creates a far more hazardous scenario than the presence of a mere piece of metal.
In the 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, I believe few, if any, could question any of the 14 caution periods mandated by NASCAR.
But it was one it didn’t call that raised debate.
Earnhardt Jr. was clear of the crash that followed, which, among others, collected Jeff Burton’s Chevrolet.
It was expected that surely NASCAR would call for caution No. 15.
It did not. Instead, the race remained green and was won by Kevin Harvick in dramatic fashion.
Harvick swept by Earnhardt Jr., who ran out of fuel between the third and fourth turns.
There’s the argument that NASCAR indeed should have called for another caution following the incident that involved Burton.
After all, under the rules, it still had two more green-white-checker restarts to determine the outcome of the race. Earnhardt Jr. would have remained the leader as the field regrouped – but he’d have even less fuel.
The conspiracy theorists suggest NASCAR didn’t call for a yellow flag because Earnhardt Jr., its most popular driver, was in the lead and on the cusp of winning for the first time in 104 races.
In so many words, it needed Earnhardt Jr. to win.
Well, yes, it would certainly benefit NASCAR if Earnhardt Jr. wins, but I don’t think that was paramount on its mind as it watched the wreck unfold.
I think it was more interested in completing the race without the interference of a second green-white-checker restart.
As fate would have it, the racing lanes in the first-second turns where the incident occurred were clear long before the field could come into play.
Burton thought there were more cars stopped at the apron with him. But in fact, they had all cleared out.
“I thought there were more cars with me,” Burton told the Charlotte Observer. “Turns out there weren’t. Everybody had cleared out.”
If I may inject a personal observation here, the track was indeed clear. Knowing NASCAR’s tendency to let races play out to their own conclusion if at all possible, and having seen similar scenarios countless times, I studied the first-second turn area closely.
I didn’t think NASCAR was going to call for a yellow flag. So I wasn’t surprised when it didn’t.
At first Burton was. He felt the ‘no-call’ was wrong. But after review he said that, in terms of safety, the call was correct.
“If the track is clear then NASCAR needs to let the race continue,” Burton said.
He also asserted that NASCAR has a tendency to hold the yellow flag late in races for a couple of reasons. First, it wants the race to play out without intervention if at all possible.
Then, as was the case at Charlotte, there may be fuel issues and NASCAR might have been doing what it could to make things fair for everyone.
Still, many say, if NASCAR wanted the race to end under green it still had two more chances for it to do so. To call for the yellow flag at the time of the crash behind leader Earnhardt Jr. would have been the right call for safety’s sake.
I’ll side with Burton. I’ll say NASCAR made the right move. But like him and others, I’ll add that when it comes to caution flag calls, NASCAR is indeed inconsistent.
The sanctioning body will throw a yellow flag for seemingly innocuous reasons halfway through a race.
At the same time, it’s loath to do so late in an event, especially when the outcome is on the line. Of course, there have been many times when it obviously had to do so.
As in other professional sports, calls made by NASCAR are based on judgments – with which, of course, not everyone always agrees.
** All that aside, Earnhardt Jr. had a very strong performance in the 600. Despite his seventh-place finish he ran consistently well throughout the race; one he might have won without the fuel issue.
It might have been disappointing for Earnhardt Jr., but his confidence level had to increase with, perhaps, his best performance of the year.
And I think he’s forged a bond with crew chief Steve Letarte – who, noticeably, doesn’t argue with Earnhardt Jr. over the radio.
A Hollywood writer could not have come up with more ironic, similar conclusions to the races on Memorial Day.
In the Indianapolis 500 rookie J.R. Hildebrand had the race won until he smacked the fourth turn wall hard on the last lap, clearing a path for winner Dan Wheldon.
And, of course, in the 600 Earnhardt Jr. runs out of gas in turns three and four on what turns out to be the race’s last lap. Harvick takes the victory.
Don’t see that sort of thing often, do you?