With Dale Earnhardt Jr. restarting on the front row with Kasey Kahne for a green-white-checker finish in Sunday's Coca-Cola 600, Kahne ran out of fuel as the two led the field to the green flag with two laps to go.
Kahne's abrupt halt caused the rest of the field to accordion behind him, with Brad Keselowski, Jeff Burton and Carl Edwards all being collected and Burton sliding down the track to the infield.
Time for a caution and green-white-checker attempt number two, right? Wrong. The race stayed green until the end, when Junior ran out of gas in Turns 3 and 4 and Kevin Harvick passed him for the race win.
There's no sense in beating around the bush, so I'll ask the question that's undoubtedly the first that comes to mind for many who watched the race: was no caution thrown because it was Junior in the lead and potentially poised to break his winless streak?
After all, this was the same race that saw a caution thrown for a "beverage" can earlier.
When the contact occurred, Junior had sprinted out to a sizable advantage over Harvick. Keselowski was spewing debris and smoke as his car motored down the backstretch. This incident was slightly more than a mere beverage can.
Keselowski did keep going, and the damage to Burton's car wasn't severe and he was able to get pointed in the right direction fairly early. Plus, NASCAR said its spotters reported that the track was clear of debris.
Now I'm not claiming that NASCAR was attempting to fix the race for Junior. NASCAR has made a point to attempt to finish as many races under green with as few GWC attempts as possible. It's not unheard of, especially at a restrictor plate track, to have a crash happen behind the leaders and not have the caution flag fly.
If that was truly the case, as USA Today's Nate Ryan astutely observed after the race, NASCAR could have thrown the caution flag after Junior took the white flag and headed into Turn 1, the site of the crash, and Junior would have been the winner. (Once the leader takes the white flag, a caution flag after that point means the race is over. And given the multitude of fuel strategies that drivers were on towards the end of the race, another attempt at a GWC would have probably meant more carnage as — in hindsight — Junior and other drivers would have run out of gas.)
However, the direct contrast in caution criteria throughout the 600 miles is contradicting. (Remember Denny Hamlin's comments on Twitter last year?) Yes, there's a human element to sports and how we deal with potential consequences — it's the basis for the fantastic book Scorecasting — but isn't consistent officiating what every sports fan wants? If a beverage can necessitates a caution when Matt Kenseth is running away from the field, doesn't a crash definitely mean a caution on Lap 401, no matter that there are less than two laps to go?
Did NASCAR make the right call keeping the race green, or should they have thrown another caution immediately and attempted another restart? Drop us a line in the comments.
- Brad Keselowski
- Kevin Harvick
- Kasey Kahne
- Jeff Burton