The unwritten rules of the last-lap pass

Matt Crossman
NASCAR.com

Kyle Busch takes longer to explain how he executed a pass on one of the most exciting last laps in recent NASCAR history than he took to actually pull off the move.

As Busch drove through Turn 2 on the final lap at Chicagoland Speedway on July 1, he expected second-place Kyle Larson to dart low and use his momentum coming out of the corner to drift high in front of him — what’s commonly known as a slide job. Busch’s plan was to wait until Larson settled in front of him, then mash the gas, duck to the inside and pass him back

But Larson knew that’s what Busch would do. As the two of them rolled through Turn 2, Larson drew even with Busch and started to move toward him … and that’s when Larson’s plan dawned on Busch.

“I was like, Surely he’s not just going to hit me,” Busch says. “And boom, he hits me. I’m like, All right, it’s on now.”

By “it’s on now” Busch means that whatever rules of racing decorum he would have otherwise followed would no longer bind him. As they raced down the backstretch, Busch wanted to stay tight behind Larson so he could move to his outside coming off of Turn 4, which would make Larson’s car loose and allow Busch to zoom by for the win. But Larson pulled away. The only chance Busch had to retake the lead was to ram into Larson, thereby moving him out of the way.

LAST-LAP PASSES: Active drivers ranked

Kyle Busch bumps Kyle Larson at Chicago
Kyle Busch bumps Kyle Larson at Chicago

So he did. After Busch hit Larson’s back bumper, Larson slid sideways, his nose pointed at the infield. His shot at a win faded like the smoke billowing from his tires. The contact sent Busch into the wall, but he straightened out, regained his momentum and sped off to the checkered flag.

That whole encounter had everything that makes NASCAR fans swoon — two elite drivers pushing themselves as hard as they could to win, at least two (depending on how you count them) great moves, at least that many incredible saves, a classic TV call from Dale Earnhardt Jr. (“SLIDE JOB!”) and an outcome undecided until the final seconds. “If you don’t like that kind of racing,” Busch said gleefully after it was over, “don’t even watch.”

Kyle Busch rubs his eye in mock tears
Kyle Busch rubs his eye in mock tears

Don’t watch? We can’t look away. A last-lap pass for the win is the most watchable (and re-watchable) move in the racing world. It is the equivalent of a Hail Mary pass in football, only at 200 miles per hour in 3,300 pounds of scuffed sheet metal, in which the slightest miscalculation by the men driving those 850-horsepower behemoths can be catastrophic.

REWATCH: Chicagoland classic

According to stats provided by Racing Insights, which has calculated NASCAR stats for TV broadcasts for decades, there have been 107 last-lap passes for the win in NASCAR history. These numbers take into account only drivers who won after not leading the next-to-the-last lap, so a move like Busch’s — in which he led the next-to-the-last lap, got passed, and retook the lead — is not included in that total.

Since the dawn of NASCAR’s Playoffs era in 2004, there have been 40 last-lap passes for the win, far more than in any other comparable time frame. So far this decade, there have been 26, seven more than the decade with the next highest total — the 2000s and 1980s both had 19.

Brad Keselowski is the active leader in last-lap passes for the win with five (three at Talladega, and one each at Auto Club and Las Vegas). Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson have four apiece. NASCAR Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough is the all-time leader with seven.

MORE: All-time drivers ranked

And here’s something absolutely stunning: Dale Earnhardt — widely considered one of the most aggressive drivers in NASCAR history — lost eight races on last lap passes, tied with Richard Petty for the most ever. Earnhardt won that way four times, Petty six.

NASCAR’s win-and-advance postseason format puts a huge premium on wins, and they will be even more valuable this postseason because three drivers (Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr.) have hogged so many of them. Could that lead to the playoffs being full of late-race thrill rides borne of desperation?

Winners have used slide jobs, crossovers and slingshots to get those last-lap wins, to say nothing of their front bumpers. But as wildly as the individual races vary, themes emerge when you dig behind the numbers. For those competitors hoping to make a last-lap pass for the win — and those who want to hold off such a charge — it’s best to keep these unwritten rules in mind.

Enter Parallax Text

UNWRITTEN RULE No. 1

Passing a teammate is fine. Bumping him is not a good idea. Wrecking him is out of the question.

Most drivers said they won’t hit a teammate in pursuit of a win. That’s not to say it never happens.

In 2016, Carl Edwards bumped Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Busch out of the way for a win at Richmond. In August, Noah Gragson tried to knock his teammate Todd Gilliland out of the way in the last lap of a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and ended up crashing both of them. These rare exceptions notwithstanding, contact with a teammate is at least the scenario in which beforehand, the majority of drivers say “I won’t do that.”

“You’re not going to move your teammate out of the way on the last lap and have an asterisk beside your win,” Clint Bowyer says. But that doesn’t mean you just let your teammate win, as Bowyer showed at Talladega in 2010 and 2011. In both years, he passed a teammate on the last lap to take the checkered flag.

In 2011, he chased Richard Childress Racing teammate Jeff Burton for much of the final two laps. That was during the tandem racing era, in which the dynamics of the draft allowed the second-place car to pass the leader by pulling out of line and staying hard on the gas.

“I was pushing him,” Bowyer says. “All I had to do was not push him, basically slingshot by him to win. All I had to worry about was timing.”

The move was inevitable enough that Burton made a joke about it before it happened. “I got on the radio and said (to Bowyer), ‘I bet you’re thinking about where you’re going to pass me on the front straightaway,’ ” Burton said after the race.

“I was going to ask him to give an old man a break, but I knew better than that. I knew he was going to make a move.”

Sure enough, Bowyer swung out and zoomed ahead of Burton for the win. “That was by far probably the neatest win I’ve ever had,” Bowyer said this summer. “We’re good friends, so all we could do is laugh about it.”

And that might be the only time a guy who finished second after being passed on the last lap ever laughed about.

UNWRITTEN RULE No 2.

Rubbing is racing, but revenge is sweet.

When a race is decided by a last-lap pass for the win, it dominates the news coverage for days or weeks, especially if there is contact involved. When it’s truly epic, it gets talked about for years — witness the 1976 Daytona 500, the 1979 Daytona 500 and the 1999 Bristol Night Race. Busch’s Chicagoland win was the most memorable so far this year, and there have been two official last-lap passes for the win in 2018 as well. In the Daytona 500, Austin Dillon dumped Aric Almirola. And in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona in July, Chris Buescher moved Erik Jones … forward, pushing him past Martin Truex Jr. and into the lead.

Enter Parallax Text

Considering NASCAR has been around since 1949, you would think a consensus has emerged about the proper way to use the chrome horn. Nope. There still is great divergence among drivers and fans about when and where it’s OK to bump somebody out of the way. A simple three-part formula goes like this:

1. If your favorite driver did it, it’s OK.

2. If someone did it to your favorite driver, it’s not OK.

3. If Kyle Busch did it, it’s wrong.

Now Busch is in his hauler a month after the Chicagoland race. He is discussing the decision making that went into knocking Larson out of the way. Larson hit him first, so Busch figured he was well within his rights to hit him back — an analysis Larson concurs with.

But what if there had been no initial contact? Busch concocts a “for example,” to explain the murky right and wrong of the bump-and-run. He imagines himself leading at Bristol and being followed by a non-teammate. He knows that person will try to knock him out of the way in pursuit of the win to secure a place/advance in the playoffs. He tabs Ricky Stenhouse Jr. to play that role … but then stops himself. Those two have had run-ins on the track before, so Stenhouse isn’t a good example because maybe he would hit Busch for reasons that go beyond the current win.

Busch is told that he would have a hard time finding someone who doesn’t have a score to settle with him. True enough, he admits. “When you’re good, you have a history with everybody, everybody wants to beat you,” he says.

Glib as this comment might have been, it reveals a truth: The moves a driver will make depend upon the opponent against whom he will make them. Busch probably would not have hit Larson if Larson had not hit him first. But there are other drivers he would gleefully punt out of the way because, he says, they have done it to him before.

Revenge is a perfectly justifiable reason for whatever last-lap move a driver wants to make, according to the drivers who exact that revenge. To paraphrase a quote almost every driver has said: “I race him the way he races me,” a gloriously indefensible bastardization of the Golden Rule that almost everyone follows anyway.

And sometimes the revenge is pre-emptive: “He’s going to do the same thing to me in that position,” Austin Dillon said after wrecking Almirola on the last lap of the Daytona 500.

There’s always going to be retaliation, so you always have to be mindful of what you’re doing on a last-lap pass.

Did you catch that? Dillon blamed something Almirola hadn’t even done for the fact he intentionally ran into Almirola and cost him the Daytona 500. That’s like sticking up a bank and saying it’s OK because the bank would have robbed you. It wouldn’t be acceptable reasoning in any other industry in America, but it works on the biggest motorsports stage when a checkered flag is at stake.

Back to Busch’s “what if”: If the driver — if it’s Stenhouse or Kyle Larson or whomever — bumps Busch out of the way, that’s a fair (sort of), acceptable (debatable) and predictable (definitely) move.

It’s important to know, Busch says, that even if he accepts the outcome of that move as inevitable, it is the beginning, not the end. Drivers have long memories and short fuses when it comes to last-lap passes for the win, especially if contact is involved.

“There’s always going to be retaliation, so you always have to be mindful of what you’re doing on a last-lap pass,” Busch says. “Someone’s going to lose a race. They’re not going to forget that. That’s going to come back on you.”

UNWRITTEN RULE NO. 3

Look out for the hungry rookie.

Brad Keselowski watched the fall Talladega race in 2008 at home with friends. That race nearly featured a last-lap pass for the win. Going through the trioval toward the checkered flag, Tony Stewart had the lead. Regan Smith, then a rookie with Dale Earnhardt Inc., moved low to attempt a pass. Stewart drifted down to block him, and Smith swerved left below the yellow line. His momentum carried him to the start/finish line ahead of Stewart in what appeared to be Smith’s first win. But NASCAR penalized Smith for advancing his position by going below the yellow line, which is against the rules. Instead of winning, he finished 18th.

After the TV broadcast reported the penalty and said the win was Stewart’s, Keselowski, who raced full time in the NASCAR Xfinity Series that year, looked at the friends in his living room. “I told them, ‘Well, I guess if I ever get in that situation, I’m just going to have to wreck him,’ “Keselowski said. “They told me, ‘Yeah, right, whatever.’ ”

The next spring, Keselowski was in that situation. And the result was a wreck that sent Carl Edwards into the catchfence and Keselowski, driving a partial schedule in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series for Hendrick Motorsports and James Finch — to Victory Lane in one of the most memorable finishes in NASCAR history.

Jason Smith | Getty Images
Jason Smith | Getty Images

Coming to the start-finish line, Keselowski first peaked his nose high, then turned low, in an attempt at a crossover move. He had position when Edwards moved down to block him. Keselowski had three choices:

1. Lift, which might have avoided contact and if it did, it also would have given the race to Edwards

2. Move down the track and out of Edwards’ way. Keselowski probably would have passed Edwards, but he also may have gone below the yellow line, as Smith did, which was against the rules; or

3. Keep his right foot hard on the accelerator and the car pointed straight, which is what he did. That meant Edwards hit him, which caused a massive wreck. Edwards’ car went airborne. It bounced off of Ryan Newman‘s hood and flew into the catchfence.

That’s the thing about last-lap moves. It’s like being in a hostage situation.

Fans blamed Keselowski for that wreck, but that’s like blaming a door if you run into it. Keselowski says he had position before Edwards turned into him. “I didn’t prevent it. There’s a difference,” Keselowski says.

Immediately after that win, Keselowski seemed ambivalent about it. He was trying to break in at the Cup level. Before taking the checkered flag, he had never led a single lap at the Cup level. He was thrilled to have won, of course, but he also talked admiringly of Smith’s move the season before to avoid the wreck. Today, Keselowski isn’t sure what he’d do if he faced the same circumstance again.

“You never know until you’re in the situation,” Keselowski says. “That’s the thing about last-lap moves. It’s like being in a hostage situation. Everybody says what they’d do. But what you‘d actually do in a hostage situation probably differs.”

UNWRITTEN RULE NO. 4

A driver desperate to prolong his championship chances will make desperate moves.

Until the “win and you’re in,” and “win and you advance” rules were added to the points system, “settling” for second might have been a better move than to risk a wreck and bad finish in pursuit of a win. But now, when a win locks a driver into the postseason and a win in the postseason advances him to the next round, an aggressive move to take a checkered flag could mean more than just a win. It could mean prolonging his championship hopes.

It was that incentive that drove Tony Stewart to make one of the most memorable moves of his long and storied career in what turned out to be his final Monster Energy Series win, at Sonoma in 2016. Denny Hamlin passed him on Turn 7 of the final lap. Hamlin drove too hard getting into Turn 12 and wheel-hopped, which allowed Stewart to catch him. Stewart pulled alongside Hamlin and rubbed doors with him. The contact sent Hamlin into the wall.

That was a little extreme. But it was an extreme scenario. There was a lot on the line.

On TV, it looks like a sledgehammer move. But Stewart was using a scalpel. He did not want to wreck Hamlin — they are friends and former teammates, and he never wanted to wreck a guy for a win, period — but he did want to pin him against the wall to avoid having to beat him in a drag race to the checkered flag. It worked. Stewart drove away unchallenged for the win.

When asked if he would attempt a pass like that on, say, Lap 12, Stewart laughs as if the question is silly. He also says he would not have tried that move, even for a win, if he were already locked into the postseason. “That was a little extreme,” he says. “But it was an extreme scenario. There was a lot on the line.”

Tony Stewart celebrating at Daytona
Tony Stewart celebrating at Daytona

UNWRITTEN RULE No. 5

The only move to thwart a last-lap pass for the win might be horribly dirty.  

A successful last-lap pass requires a witch’s brew of aggression, speed and fearlessness. Every ingredient has to be measured out precisely or the cauldron could explode, leaving the driver attempting to make the last-lap pass to pick up the shattered pieces of a win unfulfilled. But if those ingredients are measured just right, he drives off to glory, and the losing driver is left wondering what he could have done differently.

Often the answer is nothing.

But not always.

At Atlanta in 2005, Jimmie Johnson thought he had the race won when he came out of Turn 4 for the final time. All he had to do, he thought, was drive to the start/finish line. He did not think second-place driver Carl Edwards had a chance of passing him on the outside. That lane wasn’t fast, and there wasn’t enough room to fit a car up there anyway.

Johnson was wrong about all of that, and he knew he lost the race before he actually lost it. The moment his car wiggled — proof that Edwards had pulled to his rear quarter-panel — Johnson was resigned to the fact his bid for the win was over. “I heard (my spotter say) ‘outside’ and I thought, ‘How in the world did he get in there? How did he squeeze through that little piece of opening?’ ”

Carl Edwards beats Jimmie Johnson
Carl Edwards beats Jimmie Johnson

Back then, drivers didn’t often run as high as Edwards did in that pass. “Now we look at what Kyle Larson has done in our sport and running the wall and how we’ve all evolved into that, Carl was just early in finding that edge up there or that lane up there,” Johnson says, “and I didn’t defend it right.”

Knowing what he knows now, Johnson would have simply moved up a few feet and not left Edwards enough room. But once Edwards got his nose to Johnson’s quarter panel, there was no way for Johnson to defend against that move. Well … no clean way.

“The only thing you could do is potentially turn right and have him spin you head on into the wall and push you across the start/finish line,” Johnson says. “I have filed that away, if it needs to be done. But that’s about your only move, is to crash both of you, and hope you spin across the line in front of him.”

Back then, Johnson would not have made that move. He won so often he didn’t have to. But now he’s in the midst of a career-long winless streak, having not won since June 2017. If he is leading on the last lap now and someone tries to pull a Carl Edwards move on him, would he try that desperation, “turn into the wall, wreck us both and see what happens” move?

“Absolutely,” says Johnson, who has 83 race wins, seven championships and is in the conversation for greatest driver of all time.

UNWRITTEN RULE No 6.

Losing that way hurts, bad.

Don’t feel too bad for Johnson. He passed Jeff Gordon (teammate, Talladega, 2011), Brian Vickers (teammate, Talladega, 2006), Matt Kenseth (Las Vegas, 2006) and Bobby Labonte (Charlotte, 2005) for wins on the last lap. He did the same thing to Kenseth and Labonte that Edwards did to him: He got to their rear quarter-panels at precisely the right time to slow them down and pass them for the win. TV cameras captured Labonte kicking his car in frustration after the race was over. Kenseth, whose sense of humor is as dry as the desert Las Vegas Motor Speedway sits in, sought out Johnson afterward, mustered all the deadpan delivery he could, and said, “thanks.”

Most reactions from drivers who lose on last lap passes are less printable than that.

Keselowski says the high of the joy of a last-lap pass for the win is better than the low of the misery of losing that way. Then again, he has won that way five times and only lost that way once, when Marcos Ambrose passed him on the final lap at Watkins Glen in 2012. But the consensus seems to be that losing on a last-lap pass hurts more than winning on a last lap feels good.

A last-lap pass for the win is often seen as stealing one, while losing on a last-lap pass is seen as giving one away. To sponsors, team owners, crew guys and especially drivers, giving one away is the worst possible outcome, while stealing one is not the best. Dominating and then winning is. It’s a subtle difference, but a difference nonetheless.

“The misery is worse than the joy,” says Stewart, who took the white flag but not the checkered in the 2008 Daytona 500 and again at Talladega in 2012. “Race car drivers are competitive, and we hate to lose. We all love to win, but we really hate to lose.”

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