Takeaways from Michigan: NASCAR's desire for entertainment came at the expense of integrity

From The Marbles
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nascar/sprint/drivers/1542/" data-ylk="slk:Joey Logano">Joey Logano</a> (22) pulls away from his pit stop during a NASCAR Cup Series auto race, Sunday, June 10, 2018, in Brooklyn, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Joey Logano (22) pulls away from his pit stop during a NASCAR Cup Series auto race, Sunday, June 10, 2018, in Brooklyn, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Welcome to our weekly post-race column of fire takes. Let’s see what’s in store this week after Sunday’s race at Michigan.

• NASCAR can attempt to explain the end of the first stage of Sunday’s race all it wants. No explanation for what happened will be satisfactory.

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Let’s set the stage. Matt Kenseth spun on lap 57 of the 60-lap stage. NASCAR wanted to ensure the stage ended under green, so it did what it could to have a one-lap green-flag finish. That meant the caution only lasted two full laps — laps 58 and 59.

NASCAR normally closes the pits two laps before the end of a stage to prevent teams from pitting at the end of a stage in a Hail Mary pit strategy play. That makes sense. If a team pits under green knowing a yellow flag is about to happen it may not get lapped like it normally would. Closing the pits closes a potential loophole in the stage racing format.

[Clint Bowyer wins rain-shortened and rain-delayed race at Michigan]

But that loophole closing created a disastrous scenario on Sunday. A scenario that was easily preventable if NASCAR simply ended the 60-lap stage under yellow and went ahead to Stage 2.

NASCAR cited that two-lap closure precedent after Kenseth spun because it wanted to have a green-flag finish for the stage. That meant no one was allowed to legally pit before the end of the stage and created a couple of issues.

First, what was Kenseth supposed to do? He had flat tires and absolutely had to change them. Staying out on the track with flat tires isn’t an option and he ended up pitting as the pits were closed. That’s a penalty. We’ll get to that in a moment.

Second, the effort to have a green-flag finish unfairly impacted the field. The outside groove was the preferred groove at Michigan throughout the weekend. That meant the drivers in fourth, sixth and eighth had a significant advantage over the drivers in third, fifth and seventh because of NASCAR’s double-file restarts. How do you overcome that disadvantage in one lap if you’re on the inside?

That’s not fair at all. Not only did the restart bunch the field together, drivers in even-numbered positions had a head start on drivers in odd-numbered positions for the one-lap dash.

But back to Kenseth for a moment. He was penalized a lap because he was the first driver one lap down at the end of the first stage. The driver in that position gets the wavearound to get back on the lead lap. Alas, since NASCAR didn’t open the pits, Kenseth pitted illegally. He wasn’t eligible for the wavearound.

This is how we believe it should have transpired

– Kenseth spins to cause caution.
– Kenseth pits before pits open for new tires.
– Kenseth’s penalty is tail end of the longest line on the restart for the caution he caused.
– Kenseth could stay on the lead lap if he doesn’t get lapped. If he’s lapped at any point during that sequence, he would be eligible for the wave around on the ensuing caution if he’s the first car a lap down at the time of that caution.

This is what actually appears to have happened

– Kenseth spins to cause caution
– Kenseth pits for new tires. Pits never open.
– Kenseth’s penalty is tail end of the longest line on the restart
– Since NASCAR never opened the pits to finish Stage 1 under green in the rush to get the race restarted, Kenseth is leaving the pits as field is on lap 60
– Kenseth is lapped by field before stage ends and the team may think he’s the first car a lap down.
– Kenseth’s penalty for tail end of the longest line on the restart is assessed for the restart to begin stage 2. Since he’s serving penalty, he’s not eligible to get wave around to get back on the lead lap if he was the driver up for it.
– Kenseth starts stage 2 at the back of the pack and also two laps down, apparently after losing a lap while limping to pit road and then while getting lapped on the final lap of the stage.

It appears Kenseth tried to take the wave around but NASCAR ended up holding him a lap to get it back. The team might have thought he was one lap down when he was two laps down?

Yes, none of this makes any sense. By trying to provide fans with a one-lap green-flag finish, it circumvented its own procedures and rules and penalized one of its competitors in the process. Who cares if Kenseth was the driver that caused the caution on lap 57. Every caution gives every single competitor the opportunity to pit before the race goes green.

Except on Sunday. Because of NASCAR’s desire to have a green-flag finish. It’s bizarre. And cruel to Kenseth. And unbecoming of the sport. NASCAR may be in the entertainment business but sometimes integrity and objectivity comes before entertainment. Ending a stage under greem isn’t worth the mess that NASCAR created. Stages can, and should, end under caution sometimes.

• Stewart-Haas Racing’s 1-2-3 finish on Sunday was the first time a team has finished 1-2-3 since Roush Fenway Racing did it in 2008.

• Paul Menard was fifth on Sunday. It was his first top-five finish for the Wood Brothers. Menard could make the playoffs this season via points. We’re not going to be surprised if/when he does

• Kurt Busch led 46 laps. Kevin Harvick led 49. Ryan Blaney led 15. All three of them have had speed. The fouth-most laps led on Sunday? Kasey Kahne, with 11 thanks to track-position plays. Kahne was in position to start first at the start of Stage 3 but crew chief Travis Mack called him to the pits before the green flag waved. We’re not sure what’s up with that. Kahne’s been slow this year and a win would have gotten him into the playoffs. He should have stayed out. Who cares if he finishes 15th or 30th or 23rd.

• Since Bowyer won on Sunday the six winners through the first 15 races of the season mark the fewest winners in the first 15 races of a season since 1996.

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