How did Denny Hamlin get his lap back early in Sunday's race at Kentucky Speedway? According to NASCAR's Robin Pemberton, it's because the debris was unintentional.
Let's replay the scene for just a second. Hamlin had suffered a flat tire in turn four and limped his car all the way back to pit road. While he was on the access road to the pits in turns three and four, the tread from that flat right front tire shot across the track in front of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson, who both hit it.
NASCAR threw the caution flag. Because he had just been lapped, Hamlin was the first car a lap down and received the Free Pass from NASCAR, despite the fact that his tire was the reason for the caution flag.
The official reason listed in the box score of the race was debris.
“The debris causes the caution, not (the car),” Pemberton, NASCAR's Vice President for Competition said Thursday at Daytona International Speedway. “That’s the way we’ve looked at it for years since I can remember.
“Debris is debris.”
NASCAR's rule states that a car can't receive the Free Pass when in the judgment of NASCAR officials, the car was involved in or the reason for the preceding caution. That seems like it would apply to Hamlin, but because the reason listed on the box score was debris, it didn't.
Had Hamlin stopped on the track because of the flat tire or hit the wall to draw the caution flag, he would have been listed as the official reason for the caution and unable to receive the free pass. Ultimately, Hamlin getting back onto the lead lap didn't matter in the final outcome of the race as he suffered another tire problem and finished 35th.
But does the rule need to be tweaked? Many times caution-causing debris is untraceable, or if the debris is traceable, the chances of it coming from the car in the Free Pass position are minimal. (There are penalties for drivers intentionally attempting to cause a debris caution, a la Robby Gordon throwing padding out of his car at Atlanta many years ago.)
It's already left open to the discretion of NASCAR officials, so it seems that while debris may be debris, Hamlin's situation fell right into the crosshairs of the rule and the rule as it's written could have been used to also justify denying Hamlin of the Free Pass.
Should Hamlin have gotten the Free Pass? Does the rule need to be changed? Let us know in the comments below.
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- Denny Hamlin
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- Robin Pemberton