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Did NASCAR give Junior preferential treatment?

Jay Hart
Yahoo Sports

Did NASCAR give preferential treatment to Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the closing laps of Sunday night's Coca-Cola 600?

That was the conspiracy theory floating about after NASCAR decided not to throw a caution flag when, with two laps to go and Earnhardt leading the race, Jeff Burton spun. When no caution flew and the race stayed green, conspiracy theorists cried foul, certain the fix was in for Junior.

There are more than a few holes in this theory, chief among them that NASCAR could have assured Earnhardt the victory had they decided to throw the caution with one lap to go. Per the rules, if a caution comes out after the white flag flies, the field is frozen and the race is essentially over. Had that happened, Junior would have won.

Instead, NASCAR let the race go on when Burton was able to maneuver his car off the track and out of harm's way.

"Our first responsibility is obviously to make sure the race track is safe for racing," NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp told Yahoo! Sports. "We determined that it was. All the cars that had been involved had rolled away. There wasn't any debris on the racing surface that was going to be a factor. With that determination made, you want to let the race play itself out, and that's what we did. And that's what we've done before."

What's really going on here is that NASCAR officials, even if they won't admit it outright, are showing that they officiate races differently at the end than they do in the beginning. While drivers might not like it – such as Tony Stewart, who said, "If something happens, you want to know how NASCAR's going to react to it, and it should be the same all day" – fans should be glad they do.

Undoubtedly, a Burton-type spin on Lap 50 of a 400-lap race would have brought out a caution. Had it happened at the end of this race, it would have wiped out all the different fuel strategies that had been building up for the previous 150 laps and stripped the race of the will-he-or-won't-he-make-it-on-fuel drama.

In other words, it would have put the outcome in the hands of the officials. Ironically, this is exactly what conspiracy theorists are screaming against now.

NASCAR's issue isn't in the call it made but rather in the transparency of it.

When asked if the governing body is aware of the perception that it gives preferential treatment to certain drivers, Earnhardt foremost among them, Tharp said, "I think we're aware we made the right call. We made the call we would have made regardless of who is leading the race."

It's a fine answer, but not one that goes far enough to satisfy the conspiracy theorists, not that anything would.

What NASCAR should say is something like this: "We do make arbitrary calls because that's what the sport demands. We officiate the end of every race with the idea in mind that the drivers and crew chiefs will decide the outcome. Our preference is not to step in."

To Tharp's point that NASCAR wants to let the race play itself out and "that's what we've done before," it's true. Cautions in cases such as Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway are the exception, not the rule. If there's a criticism to be made, it's that NASCAR allows races speeding toward the checkered flag to continue when maybe it shouldn't.

Bottom line is whichever way NASCAR goes with its calls, someone is going to be unhappy. Throw a caution when the wrecked car is able to drive away and fans will scream that NASCAR is artificially trying to create a close finish; don't throw the caution and the fix is in.

Of course, the one question conspiracy theorists can't answer is if the fix is in and NASCAR favors Earnhardt, then why is Junior's winless streak at 105 races and counting?

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