DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Two Daytona races, two wreck-filled fiestas. And one fat controversy before the Sprint Cup season even begins: How soon is too soon, or too late, to throw the caution flag?
In the closing turns of the Drive4COPD 300, Kyle and Kurt Busch were paired up on the low line, with Joey Logano and Trevor Bayne linked up next to them. On the high line, Tony Stewart began to make a run, and that's where the race's final troubles began.
Logano apparently tried to go up the track to block Stewart, setting off a chain reaction of events that took out most of the big names remaining in the field. It marked the third wreck that involved cars in the double figures, and presaged a difficult day of racing at the Daytona 500.
Several of the affected drivers took to Twitter to vent their frustrations, while others shook their heads at the carnage.
"Man, I had it won," Logano said. "I wouldn't do a thing different, just got in someone else's mess. Two feet different I would have a trophy in my hands."
"Hard hit but I'm OK," Kyle Busch said. "Thought we had the win."
"I don't know that we even made it to Turn 4," Stewart said. "We got a big run on the outside and all of a sudden the door got slammed on us. I don't know why whoever it was turned right, but it wasn't a very good time to either try blocking or moving."
"Everybody was side drafting and we got separated," Kurt Busch said. "I went to crowd the outside lane, didn't know that there were two cars up there. I thought it was just a single lane. I was trying to side draft to get the best finish I could at the end."
Once the wreck happened, however, Stewart, Logano and the Busch brothers became irrelevant in the grand scheme of the race, and attention turned to when the race actually ended.
The key question that arose from the race is when NASCAR could, or should, throw the caution flag. Throw it too early and determining the winner can be difficult if not impossible; throw it late and you run the very real risk of having a driver in a disabled car hammered by a driver coming up fast from behind. And that's exactly the issue many drivers faced on Saturday.
"I believe the most dangerous aspect of our sport that's left is the yellow-flag situation in the closing laps," Keselowski said.
Elliott Sadler is old enough to have driven in the days where drivers raced back to the line once a caution was thrown. "The thing that stands still in my mind is Dale Jarrett sideways in Turn 4 in New Hampshire almost getting t-boned in the door," Sadler said. "Forty-three very happy race car drivers stood up and applauded NASCAR for making that change [to freeze the field once the caution comes out]."
In this situation, with cars crumpling and spinning in every direction, a caution was obviously imperative. But spread four and five wide on the track, cars were changing position with every spin of their tires. And replays clearly indicated that both winner James Buescher and Sadler ducked below the yellow line and advanced their position. Normally, that would result in a penalty to return to their former position, but in this case, NASCAR believed the ends justified the means.
"If the driver avoids accidents and debris and goes below the yellow line, that does not warrant a penalty," NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp said.
"Personally, in the same situation, it happened so quickly, I would have pushed the [caution] button quicker," Keselowski said after the press conference. "But I'm not running it and I don't know what they saw. Maybe they couldn't see what I saw. I had the ability to look at a replay, slowed down, I think based off the replay I saw [I would have thrown the caution earlier], but I don't know what they saw."
Later reviews actually boosted Keselowski from third place to second, and Cole Whitt from fifth place to fourth, dropping Sadler and Austin Dillon one space each, respectively.
So all eyes now turn to the Daytona 500. Will we see the same kind of insanity at this race as we've seen the last two days?
"Five hundred miles will tame it," David Ragan said after the race. "The Nationwide race was really tame until the last 20 laps, and I think you will see that in the 500. I think it will be tame until the final 20 or 30 laps, and then all hell is going to break loose."