No NASCAR fan should deny that Sunday's conclusion to the Finger Lakes 355 at Watkins Glen was the most thrilling finish the sport has seen in years—possibly decades.
But, lost in all the commotion of Marcos Ambrose's fantastic duel with Brad Keselowski and stunning come-from-behind victory is the fact that NASCAR appeared to have lost control of its show.
When Bobby Labonte's engine let go late in Sunday's race, Sprint Cup Series Director John Darby said that NASCAR "asked repeatedly if he was dropping anything, and the report back to us was, ‘No, tower, track is clear.’" (via Bob Pockrass of Sporting News)
As such, no yellow flag was thrown, and we were treated to the wild finish that saw Kyle Busch lose a two-second lead, then spin off the nose of Keselowski, who then staged a wild, slip-sliding battle with Ambrose over the last three-quarters of a lap.
Now, NASCAR's sanctioning body does an unbelievable job of managing all of the moving parts throughout an event. But, as we've seen in the last month with their bumbled explanation of the call that cost Elliott Sadler a victory at Indianapolis, in spite of the great job they do, NASCAR's head honchos have a hard time admitting when they make mistakes.
NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton said afterwards Sunday that while they were aware of drivers' complaints of oil on the racing surface, "[t]hey also said that their tires were wore out and their brakes were wore out and all that other stuff that goes on." (via Bob Pockrass of Sporting News)
In a sport that prides itself on keeping its drivers safe, NASCAR dropped the ball on this one in colossal fashion.
Even the untrained eye could see (and hear, in the case of Ambrose's on-board camera on that final lap) the cars sliding around on the race track during those last two circuits. The drivers involved told a harrowing tale of absolutely no grip.
In addition to Ambrose and Keselowski, Jeff Gordon (who saw a top-10 turn to a 21st-finish when he spun on the final lap), Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer and Dale Earnhardt Jr. all said that there was something on the racing surface that made things "out of control," according to Johnson (via Seth Livingston on NASCAR.com).
For the guys sitting up high above the track, the guys that get paid insanely hefty salaries to make these races go, to so blatantly deny the words of no less than seven drivers who publicly noted the oil on the surface in an attempt to cover their mistake is embarrassing.
The decision not to throw a caution could have monumental Chase implications.
Busch was left fuming—and understandably so—because the decision cost him a victory that would have put him squarely in the second wild-card spot with four races remaining until the Chase.
The fact that he may miss the Chase because of a lack of judgement on NASCAR's part is inexcusable.
Of course, this isn't the first time something like this has happened.
In 2004, then-rookie Kasey Kahne was closing in on his first career win in the fall race at Dover when Casey Mears blew an engine. NASCAR's spotters did not spot (pun intended) the oil dropped from Mears' car until Kahne and several others were already piled in the Turn 3 wall.
What happened at Watkins Glen is a complex issue that is sure to be debated in the weeks to come.
Almost every driver who said they slipped in oil on the racetrack said that they did not actually see oil, which would have made it harder for NASCAR's spotters to see and report it.
But, the fact remains that in almost every instance, NASCAR will err on the side of caution (pun not intended that time) and throw the yellow flag in order to make 100 percent sure the racing surface is safe.
NASCAR's decision on Sunday to pull a referee's equivalent of "swallowing the whistle," dealt a huge blow to the Chase chances of two of its premiere stars in Busch and Gordon and put every driver on the race track in danger.
It produced a spectacular finish that was thrilling to watch and will be talked about for years to come.
But at what potential price?
Did you agree with NASCAR's decision to stay green late in Sunday's race? Why or why not? Also, if you enjoyed it, would you still feel that way if there had not been the incredible duel between Ambrose and Keselowski? Let us know in the comments below.
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