I think the final lap of the Finger Lakes 355 at The Glen was just the kind of finish NASCAR Sprint Cup fans always want to see – and which, lately, they very often haven’t.
It was conducted as the kind of lap during which no one could be certain of the winner. The outcome was going to be the result of some unbridled, aggressive driving. The drama was of the nail-biting variety.
When the lap began Kyle Busch was the leader and the odds said that the Joe Gibbs Racing driver was on his way to his second victory of the season.
But on the Watkins Glen International road course Busch had two challengers.
One was Brad Keselowski, who was in second place and already the winner of three races this season.
Marcos Ambrose, the Australian driver, was in third place and the defending champion at the Glen. An acknowledged road racing expert, he was considered a pre-race favorite.
On a track on which oil had been dumped at various locales, leader Busch slid off the track and was then whacked by Keselowski.
“Well the 47 (Bobby Labonte) broke, you can see him, he just went by smoking,” said Dave Rogers, Busch’s crew chief. “He left oil down all over the track.
“Kyle hit the oil and it allowed Keselowski to get to us and he kind of raced us the way he raced us.
“That was a mistake by another driver – oil on the field and the rest of us had to deal with it. Kyle was just the first one there.”
Then Keselowski and Ambrose beat and banged on each other. Ambrose emerged as the winner to post his first victory of the year and the second in his career – both at Watkins Glen.
It was his sixth top-10 finish of the year for Richard Petty Motorsports.
“I thought Kyle got loose first on some oil, so you can’t blame Brad for hitting Kyle,” Ambrose said. “The guy was sliding across the track. He was gonna spin out and Brad finished him off.
“I turned in and slid through the oil and I thought I had blown my chance in turn six. Then I got a good drive because I went over the curb and I shot back up the inside of Brad and put him on the oil. Then he slid on the oil and we snuck through for the win.
“But he couldn’t see the oil. You just couldn’t see where it was.”
Yes, there was oil and yes, it played a role. But nevertheless, it was the kind of exciting, no-quarter racing on which NASCAR has built a reputation.
And it was the kind of racing so many fans say they have missed for a long time.
Certainly they were not disappointed.
I daresay NASCAR made sure they were not.
From several sources there came rumblings that NASCAR should have thrown a late-race caution and cleaned up any trace of oil on the track.
It was that oil – which, throughout the race, was present more than once – that ultimately spoiled a few drivers’ fortunes.
Frankly they can’t be blamed for being frustrated.
And any driver who negotiated that dramatic last lap couldn’t be faulted for complaining over track conditions, either.
But NASCAR took no action – which was the right thing to do.
It did indeed call for caution periods twice during the race for oil on the track.
However, the fourth, and final, yellow-flag period began on lap 72 after Tony Stewart’s crash.
When the race restarted on lap 74, Busch inherited the lead.
Afterward, oil was again detected on the racing surface – from Labonte as Rogers indicated. But if there had been a late, full course yellow flag, the dynamics of the race would have changed entirely.
At 2.45 miles in length, a delay to clean the entire track would have been very lengthy. Matter of fact, even if cleanup took only a lap or two, things would have still been different.
Certainly several teams would pit during this time to ensure they had enough fuel to finish. But in the end, well, let’s face it; the race at The Glen most likely would have dwindled into a fuel mileage event.
Maybe not, however, I think the odds were good it would be something far less than it was.
And with the final lap shaping into the finish it turned out to be, NASCAR wisely decided to let it play out.
Doesn’t the mantra for the last green-flag lap in any race declare that it is every man for himself? There are no teammates and there are no friends. The gloves are off.
It’s “Boys have at it,” pure and simple.
NASCAR sits back with a smile and won’t punish any driver for any perceived illegal tactic – unless it deems it’s a blatantly obvious one.
When it’s over some fans may be upset because their driver didn’t win. Perhaps they think he was wronged by another driver or even NASCAR.
But in the end everyone takes notice of what went on during the final, crucial lap and, ultimately, reaches the conclusion that it was all exciting and worthy of rapt attention.
Well, for the most part anyway.
It can’t be argued that the finish of the Finger Lakes 355 at The Glen was one of the season’s best. It was what fans love to see.
“I was pretty emotional there at the end,” said Todd Parrott, Ambrose’s veteran crew chief. “I’ve been around a lot of great races.
I’ve been associated with a lot of great wins, but that one right there probably ranks up there in the top two or three as far as the excitement level on the last lap.
“You go to take the white flag and you’re not sure if you’re gonna finish second or third and then, half a lap later, you’re saying you’re gonna win the race.
It’s just a lot of emotion and that was a heck of a race.
“The fans got their money’s worth on that one.”