Quick takeaways from Richmond: So what's up with the commitment line penalties?

From The Marbles

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• Let’s get this out of the way: Sunday’s race at Richmond might have been the most entertaining race of the 2017 season. The track provided multi-groove racing for the entirety of Sunday’s race as drivers were forced to use nearly every inch of the pavement in Richmond’s four turns to find the fastest way around the track.

But the takeaway from Sunday’s race isn’t going to be how NASCAR would be better served with more races that provide racing like Richmond does. It’s going to be about a minor NASCAR rule that was violated by many drivers throughout the race.

[Related: Joey Logano wins at Richmond]

Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer and Danica Patrick were each penalized for commitment line violations. Busch and Truex’s were by far the most high-profile. Busch was penalized on the final set of pit stops on Sunday while Truex was docked during the penultimate caution of the race.

The pit road commitment line at Richmond is just to the inside of turn 4. The yellow line runs from the bottom of the banking across the apron to the inside wall. At the bottom of the banking just inside the apron is an orange box painted on the track that serves as the outside barrier for the commitment line. Its role is defined clearly in NASCAR’s rule book and is different from 2016, when drivers were told that just their two left-side tires had to be to the inside of the box.

The rule was also explicitly stated to drivers before Sunday’s race. Make sure you get all four of your tires inside of the box, otherwise you’ll be penalized. While Busch and Truex (along with Bowyer and Patrick) cut it close, they pretty clearly violated the rule.

Busch, who said on his radio that he was to the inside of leader and eventual race winner Joey Logano, clipped the box as he dove to pit road. He also wasn’t to the inside of Logano either. After the race, he remarked to Fox that it was a “balls and strikes” call. Hmm.

Truex, meanwhile, had to attempt to get to pit road while going to the outside of a safety truck that was inexplicably parked in the middle of turns 3 and 4 when the pits were open on the next-to-last caution. While the two cars behind him that also went to the outside safely made it inside the commitment box, it’s fair to wonder why NASCAR had the pits open with the truck in such a precarious spot.

All four drivers had to serve penalties for their violations. Since Busch and Truex’s came under caution, they had to start at the back of the field for the ensuing restart. Busch finished 16th while Truex was 10th.

“Well my take is I knew I was really pushing the issue there but the field got all jammed there because of that safety vehicle on the race track and I had to go outside around that thing and when I knew – I knew pit road was open and we were pitting and I’m sure I could jerk that thing left as hard as I could and get to pit road without crashing [Kurt Busch] was on my left side and I guess my right sides were on the box but not completely under,” Truex said. “I thought the rule was two on or under the box, but obviously the call was that we were illegal and had to get a penalty so I don’t know what the deal is there. They changed the rule I think last week on how it is and I still thought it was if you had four at least on or under the box you were good but I don’t know. It is what it is. We were going to finish about tenth either way.”

It’s easy to argue that NASCAR was too heavy-handed in penalizing Busch and Truex because they came so close to making it inside the commitment box and it’s a minor rule. And while that sentiment may be understandable, it’s also wrong. If it’s a rule, it needs to be enforced. Can you imagine the outcry if NASCAR liberally interpreted a clearly-defined rule in the rulebook? Especially if the sanctioning body reiterated the rule to its participants before the race?

[Related: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s day goes south after contact with Jimmie Johnson]

It’s like arguing that a runner in baseball should be automatically out when stealing second if the ball beats him to the base. The fielder still has to apply the tag to the runner before he touches the base for the runner to be officially out. If the ball beats the runner but the fielder is late with the tag, the runner is safe. It’s a black-and-white call, just like the pit road commitment rule is.

If you want to make a coherent argument against the existence of the rule, we’ll certainly listen. Though we’re not sure what improvements NASCAR could make to it except attempting to find a way to make the box more visible.

It’s similar to when NASCAR started enforcing its rule that drivers pitting under caution couldn’t pass the pace car. Enforcement of an existing rule only becomes an issue if the enforcement isn’t consistent. And we’ve yet to find evidence that NASCAR hadn’t previously enforced the commitment-line rule correctly through the first eight races of 2017.

But just because NASCAR enforced a rule correctly Sunday doesn’t mean everything is positive. It’s incredibly easy to see how something like this can taint NASCAR’s 10-race playoffs later in the season. The only reason NASCAR’s Phoenix pit penalties didn’t affect the Chase in 2016 was because Truex was already eliminated and Johnson had already advanced to the final round.

This sport has a tendency to have obscure rules come up at some of the most inopportune times and this is yet another example.

• Erik Jones finished last after hitting the wall because of a flat tire on lap 5. The tire went flat because of contact with Kasey Kahne on lap 1 as Jones ran out of real estate off turn 2.

“I guess they were three-wide. I was on top and just got ran into the fence right on lap one and that’s unfortunate,” Jones said. “I mean, it’s 400 laps – I just wish there was a little bit more patience at times. It’s frustrating – I was just trying to get this race going and work.”

Jones’ gripe is legit. Look at the space between Kahne and Danica Patrick to his inside compared to the space between Kahne and Jones and the wall. The two are the black cars behind Denny Hamlin’s FedEx car.

• Daniel Suarez ended up finishing 12th after he was 32nd and multiple laps down with less than 100 laps to go.

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Nick Bromberg is the editor of Dr. Saturday and From the Marbles on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at nickbromberg@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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