There was drama at the end of Sunday's twice-rain-delayed Food City 500, but it wasn't caused by anyone on the track. It was from the caution lights turning on by accident.
Race-winner Carl Edwards had a comfortable two-second lead over Aric Almirola and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and was picking his way through lapped traffic with relative ease. Then, with three laps to go, suddenly some of the yellow caution lights on the side of the track started blinking. A caution was out, potentially setting up a green-white-checkered finish.
Or was it? No initial reason was given for the caution. Teams were confused. Fans were confused. Television was confused. As Edwards crossed the line for two laps to go, the yellow caution lights in the camera frame were blinking, but the flag man was displaying the blue flag with the yellow stripe. That's for lap down cars to move over for the leader. Not for the caution flag. Something was amiss, as someone in the flagstand apparently hit the button for the caution lights to be displayed.
Cautions that have set up green-white-checkered finishes aren't all that uncommon. But with two laps to go and no obvious reason in sight? Oh, you could hear the black helicopters struggling to take off from being overloaded with conspiracy theories.
But there wasn't a green-white-checker finish. Shortly after the caution was out and NASCAR attempted to sort out the running order, the skies opened up. The race was soon declared over, and Edwards was in victory lane.
Here's NASCAR's explanation for the light issue, from VP of Competition Robin Pemberton:
"After review of the situation post‑race, what happened in the closing laps of the race, it appears that in the flag stand one of the flag people leaned on the switch that is the manual override for the caution lights... when the flag stand realized that the caution lights were illuminated, the flag man threw the flag, and then after that happened we froze the field from the tower."
It's not the first time something like this has happened. In 2004 at a Camping World Truck Series race at Charlotte, the flagman also inadvertently hit the caution light button on lap 130 of a 134 lap race. The leader at the time? Edwards, who slowed down as the race still stayed green and was passed by Dennis Setzer. Setzer won the race while Edwards finished second.
The flagman who made the mistake at Charlotte was suspended for three races. Also, NASCAR said following the Charlotte incident that the caution light controls would be moved up to NASCAR officials in the control tower. So based off the note on that page, at some point in the last 10 years a switch has been put back in the flag stand.
With how strong Edwards' car was on Sunday night, the decision to end the Cup Series race was clearly the right call and he deserved to be in victory lane. Sure, there was no guarantee he was going to make it through the last two laps unscathed, but ending the race is a much more just decision than the potential chaos that could ensue over a two-lap restart(s) for a caution flag that wasn't real.
After assuming the lead via not pitting with 75 laps to go, Edwards held it the rest of the way. He and crew chief Jimmy Fennig made the decision to stay out for track position, fearing that they wouldn't be able to win being in traffic with fresh tires.
"I don't know," Edwards said when asked if he could have pitted and won. "Aric and those guys were really fast, I don't know if I could have gotten by them. That's a gutsy call with all the tire trouble. Goodyear makes great tires, we didn't have trouble at the end, it just was a bad matchup with the track."
The tire trouble Edwards mentions plagued Jimmie Johnson earlier in the race. At the end of the race's first stage, a 124-lap segment that started over 90 minutes late because of rain and was run almost 3 hours and 20 minutes before the final 376 laps because of even more rain, Johnson's right-side tire simply unraveled on him. The six-time champion had led for 44 laps -- partially because his team had changed just left-side tires on a previous pit stop -- and went multiple laps down as rain ended the daytime portion of the race.
Edwards is NASCAR's fourth different winner in the first four races and is now all but qualified for the Chase. Brad Keselowski is the new points leader, 10 points ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and 11 points ahead of Edwards.
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