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Hallman: More cautions needed by incautious officials

Hallman: More cautions needed by incautious officials

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Elliott wins at Roval as champ Busch bounced from playoffs

Matt Kenseth (42) drives past John Hunter Nemechek after Nemechek spun out during the Bank of America Roval 400. The caution flag was thrown only nine times in the race, a number Randy Hallman argues should have been higher.

Yes, we were entertained.

However, we were also aghast.

That’s the two-faced response at last Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race on the Roval, nickname for the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course that twists through the infield and incorporates much of the track’s traditional 1.5-mile oval.

First, the entertainment — a hotly contested race.

We enjoyed watching the cars start on a damp track with grooved tires for wet conditions. We got a sense of which drivers could or could not race in the wetness. And we watched crew chiefs grapple with the timing for a switch to the usual slick tires as the track dried.

The right driver won. Chase Elliott has stamped himself as NASCAR’s new road-course king. His Roval victory was his fourth straight in NASCAR road racing events.

He prevailed despite a midrace pit crew mistake that forced him to bring his Chevrolet in for an extra stop, demoting him to the back of the pack. He made his way back to the front, and by the finish, his Chevy was nearly four seconds ahead of Joey Logano’s second-place Ford.

Elliott enters the playoffs round of eight with renewed momentum. And his continued road-course dominance makes him the closest thing to a sure bet to qualify for the playoffs in 2021.

NASCAR’s schedule for next year will have six road-course events, double the count of recent seasons. If Elliott wins just one of the first five, he’ll be locked into the playoffs.

Now, about what left us aghast.

For some stretches during the running of the race on the twisting 2.28-mile course, NASCAR’s race control officials must have been napping. Or maybe they all masked up and made a group coffee run to a Starbucks down the street in Concord.

Something like that must have happened, because there were times when they could not have been watching the race that was being telecast on NBC. If they were watching, they would have unfurled the caution flag several more times than they did.

The race had nine caution periods. Five were for something other than crashes. They were:

  • One “competition caution,” the early planned slowdown to allow teams to make pit stops for quick adjustments.
  • Two “stage cautions,” preordained breaks that are NASCAR’s version of TV timeouts, with points awarded for good stage finishes.
  • Two “debris cautions,” and there really was debris on the track.

The remaining four cautions were for crashes, spinouts or stalled cars. There should have been more than four — probably half a dozen more. Let’s look at the two most obvious instances.

About halfway through the race, Cole Custer’s Ford got turned around on track. He ended up sitting still in the racing groove, facing oncoming traffic.

Had he been tooling along by himself there would be no reason to bring out the yellow. It would have been fine to let him turn around and carry on.

But Custer wasn’t by himself. He was near the front of the pack soon after a restart. Splitting to pass on either side, 24 of the 38 starters had to get by. (I watched the video and counted passing cars.) Some thumped each other, causing varying degrees of damage. Luckily, nobody slammed head-on into Custer’s inert car.

About 20 laps later, Ryan Blaney was leading the race after another restart when he overdrove a corner and went off into the soaked grass, then made a water-splashing return to the asphalt. He spun sideways and stopped, driver’s side athwart the racing groove.

The entire field — 36 cars besides Blaney’s Ford were still running — took evasive action to avoid T-boning Blaney.

Again, they banged against each other. Again, they avoided the worst-case crash.

And, again, NASCAR officials either awoke from their naps or resumed their posts after the Starbucks run, apparently blithely unaware of what had been happening in their race.

Sure, there is room for some judgment in deciding when a caution is justified. It can be a tough call. I have often defended NASCAR’s judgment in allowing a race to continue when the incident in question develops near the back of the pack.

But in these instances, that was not the case. When a car spins and sits in the middle of the racing groove with all or most of the field bearing down, it is time to wave the yellow flag and turn on the yellow lights.

Maybe NASCAR officials were fretting that if a nearby rain cell reached the track with possibly blinding rain, they might have to deploy a red flag and stop the race. The race could have been delayed so long that NBC might have pulled the event off its main network feed and switched it to NBCSN — an embarrassing demotion to the children’s table.

That’s what happened a week earlier with the finish of the race at Talladega Superspeedway. NBC handed its main network off to affiliates for local evening news and the thrilling final laps of the race were carried on the sister sports channel.

It would have been a shame if a second straight good race had suffered similar humiliation Sunday, but that is not reason enough to hold off on a caution flag when a caution flag is in order.

NASCAR officials, take a look at your race tapes. Then, call Custer and Blaney and apologize for letting the race continue under green in those two instances.

Then, thank the higher power of your choice that you got by with it this time.

Finally, don’t do it again.

Randy Hallman, a veteran NASCAR writer, is retired from the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Email him at fullthrottlerh@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @RandyLHallman.

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