INDIANAPOLIS — The craziest and best racing moment of the 2017 season came in a race where the rules could change for 2018 and was overshadowed by an explanation of end-race officiating that was as transparent as black paint.
This is NASCAR.
With smoke pouring from his car, Jimmie Johnson challenged teammate Kasey Kahne and Brad Keselowski three-wide into turn three on lap 159 of the scheduled 160-lap race. Neither driver backed down entering a 90-degree corner that stock cars have a hard enough time handling two-wide.
“It was just a Tin Cup moment,” Keselowski said. “I didn’t want to lose by laying up. I thought if we all wrecked, I could go home and feel good about that. But if I laid up, they all drove on, I finished second, I would have been mad about that forever.”
Kahne was potentially racing for his future at Hendrick Motorsports. Keselowski was racing for his and Team Penske’s first Brickyard 400 win and the first for Ford since 1999. And Johnson was trying for a record-tying fifth 400 win.
“I’m not sure I was blowing up,” Johnson said of his engine. “I was definitely smoking and it was definitely engine oil smoke, I could smell that. I didn’t know where it was coming from and I had decent grip through 1 and 2, and so I went into turn 3. I had a shot to win the Brickyard 400 for the fifth time; and I was hoping one, the engine would live, and two, we would make it through Turns 3 and 4.”
Kahne and Keselowski did. Johnson didn’t. His car skidded into the outside wall and his day was over.
It was a moment that NASCAR executives yearn for. The kind that can be played over and over again on highlight reels for years to come. And think of the legendary stories that would be told if Johnson would have won his fifth race at the fabled track with a three-wide move and an engine pouring smoke.
It was a bonus that the racing came at a track maligned for the quality of racing that it produces. After NASCAR experimented with restrictor plates and aero ducts during Saturday’s Xfinity Series race — and deemed it a success — it’s not much of a stretch to think that some of those same tweaks were destined for the Cup Series at Indianapolis when the race is next run in September of 2018.
But thanks to the craziness that ensued afterward, the three-wide moment was overshadowed. And NASCAR has itself to blame for part of it.
Sunday’s race, which started before 3 p.m. ET stretched over six hours because of three red flags. One lasted 107 minutes for rain and two came because of massive accidents. Oh, and there were also 14 caution flags for 55 of the race’s 167 laps.
If there was ever a race that was desperate for an ending, it was the 2017 Brickyard 400, especially as the 9:07 p.m. ET sunset in Indianapolis quickly approached a track without lights.
Boy, was that ending awkward though. As Denny Hamlin crashed on the backstretch on lap 166, Kahne and Keselowski were nowhere near the overtime line that decides the fate of the race when it extends past its scheduled distance.
If the caution comes out when the leader is past the line, the race is over. If it’s before, the race is restarted again. The rule is pretty simple in theory, but nothing is simple in this sport. Here’s how it is as written in the NASCAR rule book.
“If the caution lights are illuminated and/or the yellow flag is displayed after the leader’s vehicle breaks the vertical plane of the leading edge of the Overtime Line, it will be considered an official attempt, and the Race will not be restarted and will conclude under caution. All additional laps, if any, will be counted and scored.”
Much like it did a few weeks earlier in the Xfinity Series race at Daytona, NASCAR waited at least a handful of seconds to throw the caution flag for Hamlin’s crash until after Kahne was across the line.
While the incident that caused the caution came when the leaders were far from the overtime line, the moment of caution — when the lights are illuminated — is not until NASCAR makes it official. It’s a rule that both fans and drivers dislike, and one that we bet will be changing in 2018. Which makes it more and more frustrating that such a wild race ended the way it did.
“What we have always said and we’ve been consistent as much as I’ve talked about it, we’re going to make every attempt to make the race finish under green and to do that you’ve gotta see what happens with an incident,” NASCAR vice president Steve O’Donnell said. “And with this case we did that and once we decided to throw the caution when we wanted to dispatch emergency equipment — we also knew there was oil on the racetrack — we threw the caution and ultimately that’s the end of the race.”
Because there was oil on the track, O’Donnell said a fourth red flag would have been necessary and the race wouldn’t have been able to restart. That is, of course, if the caution was called before Kahne hit the overtime line.
He also added that the decision to call the caution wasn’t made with daylight in mind.
“It didn’t, but it we would not have been able to restart that race,” O’Donnell said. “There was oil down, it would have been another red flag and I think that the last couple red flags were 15 to 20 minutes with oil so we were up against it as well.”
Both Keselowski and Newman said their visibility was actually better in the waning laps than it was before.
“It was actually worse when the sun was setting in [turns] three and four,” Newman said. “You couldn’t see the wall in turn three when the sun was setting.”
“It was worse at 7:30 than it was at 8:30,” he said.
It’s hard to believe that NASCAR officials weren’t thinking at all about the sun setting when making the caution call. And if they were, it’s totally understandable. But if so, why not just say it and say the race ended due to darkness?
Saying the series wants to let overtime crashes play out is decent enough reasoning, but it comes with a flaw.
By waiting for the crash to play out Sunday, NASCAR guaranteed the race would end by choosing to throw a caution after Kahne crossed the line. Had it thrown a caution immediately — and NASCAR can be incredibly quick on the caution trigger when wants to be — it is making every attempt that it can to make the race finish under green by having another restart.
Maybe that attempt could not have happened because of the darkness after track crews spent the time cleaning up the track. But isn’t it worth finding out?
Thanks to NASCAR’s overtime line and the way the series officiates its cautions, we’ll never know. And that’s a shame. We might have had another three-wide into turn three moment.
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