NASCAR hits rough patch over finishes

End-of-race yellow flag leads fans to blow gaskets

Auto Racing

April 28, 2004|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Robby Gordon was in position to win Sunday. He was riding fifth, biding his time, when, with three laps to go, a wreck brought out the caution flag and froze the running order of the Aaron's 499 Nextel Cup race in Talladega, Ala.

It disappointed him and enraged many among the pro-Dale Earnhardt Jr. crowd, who hurled beer cans and soda cans onto the track as their driver finished second to Jeff Gordon, who was leading when the yellow flag was displayed.

"No race should ever finish under yellow," Robby Gordon said by phone from Indiana, where he was testing his Indianapolis 500 car. "I think for the fans we should have a green-white finish unless something tragic preceded it or some medical emergency would cause an extensive cleanup."

After watching 54 lead changes over more than 3 1/2 hours in the race, most fans and some drivers and crew chiefs would agree, but NASCAR vice president Jim Hunter said the sanctioning body "has no plans" to revisit the way Nextel Cup races are concluded.

"The race traditionally has been an advertised distance," said Hunter, "and that's what we run. ... We announce before every race that somewhere outside of five laps we'll red-flag [stop] the race to try to ensure a green-flag finish - though there is no way to guarantee that."

But Sunday, fans were ready for a rousing finish when, instead, they were presented with a sedate series of parade laps.

Last September, after Dale Jarrett's car crashed and he was stranded in the middle of the track at New Hampshire International Speedway, NASCAR determined a long-standing gentlemen's agreement that precluded racing back to the yellow flag was no longer working and imposed a rule forbidding it.

Now, when a wreck occurs, the field is frozen immediately when the yellow caution flag is displayed.

The other rule that came into play Sunday was the one regarding green-flag finishes. Early in the 2003 season, NASCAR took heat because of its inconsistency in handling caution situations near the end of races. At one race, NASCAR put out the red flag to stop the race so it could be restarted for a green-flag run toward the finish, and at another it didn't.

So the sanctioning body made another rule. It would attempt to achieve a green-flag finish in a race interrupted by a caution period by stopping it if there were more than "about" five laps to go.

Hunter said Sunday's race was the first in which freezing the cars, in essence, decided the winner.

Few competitors, if any, disagree with the rule that eliminates racing back to the start-finish line under yellow.

"Racing back to the yellow just makes for a dangerous situation," said Larry Carter, the crew chief for Rusty Wallace. "NASCAR has gotten where it is because of the superstars or the heroes we have. We don't need to lose any of these guys to a freak accident or something we can prevent.

"Racing is obviously a dangerous sport, and some things we can't prevent, but the things NASCAR can do, like slowing down the cars on pit road and not racing back to the caution, are things I think we've got to do."

But when it comes to determining the race winner under yellow, there are differing opinions.

"I like them ending under yellow," said Wallace, who ended a near three-year winless streak two weeks ago under green in Martinsville, Va. "The reason is because we know as drivers if you've got two or three laps to go, it's going to cause one heck of a mess trying to restart. That's how I got on my roof and ended up in the hospital with broken bones, tore all to crap.

"The only reason we try to restart these races is to put on an exciting show."

Robby Gordon didn't disagree with Wallace's assessment, but added: "I'm pretty sure that's what everyone buys those tickets for."

And driver Jimmie Johnson said that, though tradition may hold races be run at an advertised length, the sport has crossed a line into the entertainment zone, and that means it needs to act accordingly.

"Looking at our new points system, it's not based on racing anymore," Johnson said. "I would think there needs to be a change in how races finish so they are pleasing to our corporate sponsors and our fans. I'd anticipate a change next year.

"But right now, I think everyone just wants it to be consistent and fair to everyone every week."

Last weekend, the prospect of a green-flag finish was further complicated by fans throwing cans onto the track and by NASCAR's outdated scoring system.

"We had no chance of restarting the race when the fans started throwing the cans," Wallace said during a conference call. "I was trying to miss the Miller Lite cans. I saw a lot of them out there, and I saw a lot of Budweiser cans. Anything they've got in their hands when they've got frustration, they're going to throw it.

"At Daytona a couple of years ago, they threw all those Pepsi coolers out on the backstretch."

Wallace tried to make light of the situation, but said it was totally unacceptable.

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