Officially Fishy

Monday the SpeedFX message board resembled Beirut in cyberspace. The topic hotly debated by people on either side of the issue was the now infamous “mystery debris” caution that flew on lap 169 at Pocono. For those of you who missed the race, at that point it appeared likely Mark Martin and a few other drivers would be able to complete the race without stopping for fuel. The vast majority of drivers and teams were going to have to stop for at least a splash and go. Thus Martin and the others playing the fuel economy gambit would likely have won the race going away. But that caution flag allowed the field to stop and get the gas they needed to go to the distance thus reshuffling the deck.

After the race, a vast majority of drivers said they saw no debris on the track. Even winner Dale Jarrett made light of the issue. Since it worked to his benefit he claimed he saw the debris. When asked what sort of debris it was Jarrett just grinned and said “NASCAR debris”. Keep in mind at that moment Jarrett was wearing an UPS cap and UPS is the official shipping company of NASCAR.

So, some fans reasoned, maybe there was debris. A few claimed to have seen it personally a 10 inch section of what appeared to be skirting from a car. Pocono is a big place those folks reason. Maybe the drivers just overlooked it while some eagle-eyed NASCAR spotter did his job. I’m not sure that argument holds water. None of the drivers saw it? And if it was in the racing groove, someplace that genuinely would have called for a caution flag for safety reasons, surely they would have seen it. A small piece of debris located out of harms way is seldom reason for a caution flag. In fact we’ve all watched races this year that were running long or nearing the finish where NASCAR has withheld the caution flag despite oil slicks debris fields, and even disabled cars located in the racing groove. TV networks don’t like races that run long or end under caution, you know?

Some folks took a cynical attitude that Sunday’s “mystery” caution certainly wasn’t the first in the sport’s history and it won’t be the last so there was no sense in getting all worked up over it. Yes, there have been other mystery caution flags, but in my estimation since the advent of the new TV package last season it seems there are more and more such cautions not to mention curious discrepancies between when a race will or won’t be red-flagged near the end of the event to have a green flag finish.

And NASCAR’s new network partners seem fine with that. After all they know if a race gets boring, particularly on a lovely spring afternoon like much of the country enjoyed last Sunday television sets start clicking off. Darrell Waltrip seemed to take a smug attitude towards the entire situation, as if to imply “well, you knew that was coming.” Imagine if you will a Monday night football game that turned into a rout during the first half. ABC likes good ratings as well, but my guess is if an official suddenly let a touchdown by the losing team stand despite evidence the scoring player had stepped out of bounds at midfield, the announcing crew (John Madden in particular) would be going ballistic in the booth, calling for the play to be reviewed or referring to the officials as blind men. Hell, some congressman whose home team was the aggrieved party would probably call congressional hearings.

Other folks took the contrary point of view on the message board. While admitting the reason for the caution was suspect at best, they cheered NASCAR for throwing it. After all, the race was getting boring. Fans who paid a good deal of money and sat in gridlocked traffic for hours deserved an exciting finish. Even fans that only invested three and half hours of their weekend at home on the couch deserved an exciting finish as well. I’m all for exciting finishes. I’d like to see a green/white/checkered rule like the truck series uses added to the Winston Cup rulebook. (And thus applied fairly in every instance not when the mood suits.) But I’d point out a couple things to folks who hold this point of view. Some of those fans who sat on their couches or paid big bucks to attend the race live did so because they hoped to see Mark Martin, whose on a bit of a hot streak and very popular, win the race. They were deprived of that chance by the mystery caution. The World Series is baseball’s moment in the sun, but the umpires don’t try to make the games most exciting for fans who paid big bucks to see the games or are watching at home, by changing the size of the strike zone depending on which team is winning to keep things close.

A small but vocal group of posters claimed the caution wasn’t to spice up the race or to eliminate the fuel strategy. In their view the caution was thrown to benefit a driver who was about to go a lap down. The two drivers most often cited in this case were Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Junior. Why? While both drivers have legions of loyal fans, they also have more than their fair share of detractors who look with suspicion on anything that allows them to finish well. (My favorite comment along those lines arrived in a rather profane email that once translated into English seemed to imply NASCAR threw the caution flag so Jeff Gordon could pit and get his traction control repaired.) Sorry, I’m not buying. While I feel the caution flag was inappropriate I don’t think it was thrown to help or hurt any specific driver, just to give the network folks a better finish for their highlight reels.

In the end, why is this such an important issue? It’s over and done with. NASCAR is not going to rerun the end of the race because some fans and writers are unhappy. Mark Martin still finished second which isn’t that bad and in fact is a better finish than he managed in all of 2001. Five points. Big deal.

Yes, Virginia (and you too Carolina) it is a big deal. Mystery caution flags are a black mark on the credibility of the sport. Every driver and team enters a race believing the event will be run by a certain set of rules as laid out in the rulebook fans don’t get to see but they do. Whether a Pontiac hasn’t won in awhile, a popular driver is in a bit of a slump, or the last few races didn’t get good ratings shouldn’t matter at all. What’s more when the sponsors sign those big checks to turn their car into a rolling billboard they believe that their team will be treated fairly and as such they will be given a chance to reap the huge publicity awarded a race winner. If some of those sponsors begin feeling that’s not the case, they’ll pack their bags and blow out of Dodge. An even bigger prize is at stake in Cup racing today over and beyond a race win, the championship. The second place finisher doesn’t appear on Letterman or Regis. Had Sunday’s race been allowed to run to its conclusion fairly it’s likely the three drivers ahead of Mark Martin in the points would have finished in lower positions than they did, and he would have finished one position higher. Even Miss Cleo can’t predict how that might play out at the end of the year when the final points totals are tabulated and the big checks written.

The cavalier attitude of the drivers after the race had me grinding my teeth. This is NASCAR, the attitude seems to be. Stuff like this happens. There’s no sense fighting City Hall. Mark Martin was pretty steamed when he got out of the car, but more circumspect in subsequent interviews. In any other legitimate sport a player accusing officials of handing one team the game would cause outrage and perhaps rioting in the stands. But stock car fans, and apparently the competitors accept it as the way NASCAR does business. The cynical attitude is so persuasive that it can cause something happy and joyful like Dale Earnhardt Junior’s win at Daytona last July to be looked at with suspicion by some elements of the press and the fans. I believe that win was hard earned by the driver who wanted the victory most that particular evening, and it’s a shame it had to be tainted, but it’s the inevitable consequence of this “Stuff happens” (Not my first choice of words) attitude. As the line between sport (where the rules are followed and occasionally there’s a boring rout) and entertainment (manipulated to keep things exciting) grows increasingly blurred, NASCAR is sliding down a slippery slope into the valley of the damned that’s become home to professional wrestling.

Related Topics:

NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2002

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