The most valuable asset to a sport is its integrity. If NASCAR loses its integrity, it has lost everything.
It is with that in mind, that those at the Charlotte and Daytona offices should take questions about what happened at the end of the Auto Club 400 very seriously.
Of course, I’m talking about the final 15 laps and the penultimate two cautions that ultimately decided the outcome of the race. Matt Kenseth was leading a race that very well could have become a fuel mileage race when the caution fell for debris with 15 laps to go.
Unfortunately, the debris was never shown on the television broadcast and Kenseth lost the lead when he broke an axle during the resulting pit stop.
A dominant Kurt Busch quickly took the lead on the restart and was a football field away from taking the white flag when yet another debris caution slowed the race, this one setting up a green-white-checkered finish.
And yet again, the debris was never shown.
On the final restart, Kurt Busch again took the lead and took the white flag when Greg Biffle crashed at the start-finish line. This time, NASCAR waited before calling for the yellow flag while Brad Keselowski, on much fresher tires, passed Busch for the lead.
Despite likely debris on the frontstretch, the tower allowed the race to continue to its extended conclusion.
It was dramatic. It was exciting. It was fun.
It was an entertaining romp fitting of a Hollywood script, and yes, it was an absolute blast to watch.
But it also left a ton of people, on pit road, inside the cockpits and those watching around the world scratching their heads about a wide number of competition issues to arise out of the ordeal.
After the second caution in question, Busch even came over the radio and simply said, “WWE” in reference to the scripted finishes and bombastic storylines that are orchestrated from its home offices in Stamford, Connecticut.
Make no mistake, I’m not accusing the sport of orchestrating anything. NASCAR officials say they don’t play favorites and Stock car racing in itself is way too combustible and unpredictable to try to ensure or prevent a specific outcome. (Wouldn’t Dale Earnhardt Jr. be a eight-time champion if NASCAR were in the business of rigging races?) However, it speaks volumes when competitors, both new and old, as well as a certain subset of the fan base insists that the status quo leaves one too many questions.
NASCAR has done a tremendous job of making itself more transparent to fans and participants in recent seasons. Most notably, the Sanctioning Body has instituted a scaled deterrent system intended to eliminate guesswork over what penalty a violation may invoke.
For this season, NASCAR rolled out its next-generation pit road video review system, designed to limit judgement calls. At the same time, NASCAR executives have aggressively pursued ways to bring fans closer to the penalty calling process while also working with the media to bring them closer to the tower and inspection process.
Based on those actions, NASCAR is aware of the need to be transparent and limit questions about its integrity, which is why the “phantom debris menace” must also be addressed in the coming months.
Perhaps the blame falls on the television partners more than the Sanctioning Body. After all, the directors and camera crew are ultimately responsible for what gets shown to the fans — both on television and in the grandstands via Sprint Vision and FanVision.
But they are partners and it is NASCAR that will ultimately take the public relations blow more than the broadcaster — and perhaps rightfully so — because at the end of the day, this is NASCAR’s television product.
And even if a second viewing of the finish shows a glaring piece of debris under green (see above), it’s vital to the health of the sport that it’s given ample coverage via replay just as a pass for the lead or additional race changing elements would be shown.
It’s just strange that in an age of automated pit road officiating, the racing surface cannot be monitored in the same way. Even odder is that in the era of transparent penalties that everyone invested in the sport doesn’t have a better idea of what debris is worth slowing the race and what isn’t.
Admittedly, every situation is different and race control has a split second to make a decision. That’s a tremendously difficult position to be in. But if the decision is to throw the caution, it needs to be made clear what is disrupting the flow of the event.
Leaving it a mystery, just leads to questions about the integrity of NASCAR and that’s the most dangerous question of them all.
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