Are You Serious?
February 25, 2002 | 12:00 A.M. EST
When NASCAR landed its billion-dollar TV deal a couple years ago, we all hoped one of the fallouts would be an end to yellow-flag finishes. Certainly the folks at NBC and FOX wouldn't want to see their new high-flying property settle things at construction-zone speeds.
Well, every now and then, they get their wish. Last week at Daytona, for instance, the cars were stopped during a late caution in order to guarantee a full-throttle finish.
Perhaps just to remind everyone who's boss, perhaps just to drive us all crazy, or perhaps because they think it was the right call, NASCAR waited an entire week to do the exact opposite of what they did at Daytona.
From the high-tech, specific inspection process to computerized scoring, many of racing's infamous gray areas are a thing of the past. But there are still a few judgement calls out there.
One of the newest, and the most easily solved, is this debate over yellow-flag finishes.
At Daytona, there was a huge wreck on a restart with six laps to go. The cars came back around to the start/finish line, then stopped on the backstraight with four and half laps remaining.
Sunday at Rockingham, the yellow came out with five laps remaining.
Red flag? Not this time, said NASCAR.
By the time they ran a couple of caution laps to give everyone a chance to pit, there would've likely been just one lap left - as if that's a bad thing, and as if anyone with a chance would've pitted that late.
"Ever since we started this red flag, we said it would be used if there were enough laps to do so," NASCAR President Mike Helton said after Sunday's race. "There's wasn't enough time here."
Only the most conspiracy-minded would think Helton doesn't truly feel he did the right thing.
Problem is, though, in the end it's still a judgement call. And in a sport filled to the brim with real and imagined conflicts of interest, it's best to eliminate judgement calls wherever possible - and in this case, it's very possible.
Do it with the red flag if you have to. Or do it by running under yellow until the track is clean, then running a minimum of a two-lap green/white/checkers finish. Whatever, just do it.
In doing so, NASCAR will be doing everyone a favor - including NASCAR itself, of course.
"If it was just a consistent deal it would be better - whichever way it is, it would be better," Bobby Labonte said Sunday. "It doesn't matter if it's right or wrong; just make one decision, and who cares at that point in time."
Nobody, you might imagine, is as baffled and aggravated as Sterling Marlin at this inconsistency. He was leading at Daytona and could've limped his damaged Dodge to victory under caution, but the red flag ended his chances. Sunday at Rockingham, he was running second when the final caution flew, and may have finished there at full speed. But maybe not.
"Whoever's running the show up there sometimes decides to do it and sometimes they don't," Marlin said of the two different endings. "It depends on who's leading the race."
Who knows whether Marlin truly feels it depends on who's leading. That could just be frustration talking. But some feel that way, and you'll never convince them otherwise.
There will always be those who refuse to believe racing is totally on the up-n-up. But this is one conspiracy theory and one controversy that could be put to rest very easily.