NASCAR's inconsistency should raise a red flag


March 10, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Let's black-flag NASCAR for a moment to give it a chance to take a deep breath.

Over the first three weeks of the season, NASCAR has been acting like it never has seen a race. It's been ravaged by inconsistency. A red flag set up a green-flag finish in the Daytona 500. But there was no green-flag finish in Rockingham, N.C., the next week, despite a situation that looked very similar. And last weekend a penalty that was not enforced in Las Vegas helped Sterling Marlin win the race.

Three races, three different rules applied. The rules are always changing in Winston Cup racing, but usually those rules apply to car preparation, not to on-track racing situations.

"The inconsistency bothers us, too," NASCAR vice president Jim Hunter said.

Generally, it's embarrassing. And for competing teams, it's pure frustration.

Marlin lost the Daytona 500, possibly because the race was stopped. A week later, he might also have lost at Rockingham, because the race wasn't stopped.

"Whoever's running the show sometimes decides to stop the race and sometimes doesn't," Marlin said.

If Daytona had ended like Rockingham, Marlin said, "We'd have won."

Of course, he did win at Las Vegas because a NASCAR penalty wasn't assessed, which irked Tony Stewart's crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, who already was frazzled by the way NASCAR juggles rules that affect the aerodynamics of the competing cars.

"When you put stickers [new tires] on and Dodge and Ford [cars] drive away from you ... when we led half of the race? I don't know - you tell me," Zipadelli said. "And, they let the No. 40 car speed on pit road and then you don't give the infraction and then he wins the race. I don't know what to tell you."

NASCAR has explained all the incidents. But, Hunter agrees, no one wants a recurrence.

"Mike Helton [NASCAR president] couldn't have been stronger after last Sunday's race," Hunter said. "We have to find out why [communications failed in the pits] and make sure it doesn't happen again. And on the [red/yellow flag issue], we're considering ideas to fix the situation."

It is amazing that in its 54th year of racing, NASCAR is just getting around to considering a hard-and-fast rule for how to consistently handle caution situations at the end of Winston Cup races.

Two ideas being reviewed most closely: automatically throwing a red flag if there is a caution with a certain number of laps left; and the green-white-checker procedure that is used in the Craftsman Truck Series.

The green-white-checker means that if a caution occurs on any lap near the end of a race, it will be followed by a green-flag lap and then the white-flag (final) lap.

Hunter pointed out there are negatives about both ideas. If cars are stopped for a red flag with just a few laps left, car difficulties could arise from shutting off the engine and turning it back on. Tires could have been damaged by running through debris, which, in Hunter's mind, means there has to be enough time to allow the cars to come into the pits before restarting under green.

And, with the green-white-checker arrangement, there is the possibility of intentional spinouts.

"Say someone is in 10th place, but really good on restarts," Hunter said. "And he goes from 10th to fifth and suddenly someone else spins out intentionally, like say, his teammate, and there has to be another restart. What then?"

What then, indeed. Multi-car teams are still another problem.

Hunter suggests NASCAR could limit the green-white-checker to one restart.

"Make the good-faith effort to have a green-flag finish, but if another incident occurs, simply finish under yellow," he said.

It will be interesting to see what NASCAR does. It will be interesting to see if it does anything.

CART's new start

Energy is high for the CART season opener today in Monterrey, Mexico.

This is a new beginning with Chris Pook, the respected Long Beach promoter, at the helm. Hopes are he can lead the open-wheel series back to prominence.

Among the early changes Pook has made has been to re-institute Friday qualifying. The fastest qualifier Friday and Saturday will each be awarded a front row starting spot (fastest on the pole) and one point in the standings. At road courses, all cars will be on track at the same time, but limited to 15 total laps per car per session. And, on race day, there will be a specified maximum amount of laps a car can run on one load of fuel, thus limiting fuel economy races.

CART also has ruled that its races will finish under a green flag. Six of its races will be on CBS, the rest on Speed Channel.

In other CART news, the canceled Chicago race is back on. The race is so important to this make-or-break season, CART will rent Chicago Motor Speedway and promote the race itself (a first in the organization's history). It will run as scheduled, June 30.

Hagerstown under way

Despite weekend rain, Hagerstown Speedway held its grand opening and Gary Stuhler notched his 99th career win in the 25-lap ITSI late-model feature.

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