NASCAR ignites more controversy at Kansas

Kansas Speedway, NASCAR (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)
Kansas Speedway, NASCAR (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images) /

NASCAR waited 19 laps to throw a caution flag for a stray tire in the infield grass at Kansas Speedway, igniting a controversy.

On lap 212 of Sunday’s 267-lap NASCAR Cup Series race at Kansas Speedway, a tire rolled away from the pit crew of Tyler Reddick and the #8 team of Richard Childress Racing.

That tire eventually came to rest in the infield grass of the four-turn, 1.5-mile (2.414-kilometer) oval in Kansas City, Kansas, but a caution flag was not thrown.

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Several drivers had already made their pit stops and gone a lap down, but a number of drivers were stretching their runs in the hope of a caution flag period. But that caution flag period never came.

Roush Fenway Racing’s Chris Buescher completed the pit cycle when he relinquished the lead on lap 226, 14 laps later.

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Back in the lead was Hendrick Motorsports’ Kyle Larson, who had led a race-high 108 laps by that point. But a few laps after Buescher came into the pits, the caution flag finally threw — and it was thrown to retrieve the same tire that was in the same spot 19 laps beforehand.

By this point in the race, the only three caution flag periods included a competition caution and the caution flag periods to end stages one and two. But this one ended up being one of four over the race’s final 37 laps.

It led to a restart on lap 236, and after a 10-lap green flag run, another caution flag came out for an incident. By the time the race had ended, there were three caution flag periods for 15 laps over the final 22 laps and just seven laps of green flag action, including the final two-lap shootout that led to a Kyle Busch victory.

And it all started with the tire, which has ignited a bit of controversy. In a way, it is sort of reminiscent of the caution flag that was thrown for that “torrential downpour” at the Daytona International Speedway road course back in February.

Here is what Elton Sawyer, NASCAR vice president of officiating and technical inspection, had to say on Monday on “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio regarding why the caution flag was thrown and why it was thrown when it was.

"“As we sit in the tower, our role as officials is to basically keep a safe pit road, one, and, two, make sure we have a level playing field for the competitors. As the tire became uncontrolled, our first decision was ‘Do we have a safety issue?’“We felt it was far enough away from the racing surface and it also was off pit road. We were in the middle of a green-flag pit stop there, and we want to make sure the teams and their strategies that they have worked up throughout the event, that they’re able to unfold as they played out. We don’t want to get in the middle of that as the league.“Now, if it’s a bona fide safety issue, then we’ll have to act on that. As I said earlier, the tire was in a position that we didn’t feel like we had a safety issue. We let the strategy unfold, and once everyone had played out their cards there, we knew we had to go get it, it’s just when you do that. We made the decision and felt like (we) had no real issues after that. That was the right decision for both safety and the competition side.”"

The question that many have is this: if it’s not a safety issue one second, how is the same exact tire in the same exact location a safety issue 19 laps later to the point where it is worth throwing a caution flag? And why did they “have to go get it” if it wasn’t? Wasn’t it “far enough away from the racing surface”? How did that situation change after 19 laps?

And isn’t “letting the strategy unfold” kind of like pure manipulation of the race result when you know you’re going to throw a caution flag at some point anyway but you wait that long to do so?

Not only did it produce another restart, which ultimately led to three more caution flag periods, the only three incident-related caution flag periods of the race, in the closing laps, but it screwed over the drivers who actually had been banking on a caution that NASCAR was clearly intent on throwing.

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So NASCAR effectively waited until the strategy they wanted to play out played out, and they even admitted it afterward — all in an effort to “not get in the middle”. Right or wrong, this is yet another decision by NASCAR that will be debated heavily, which is nothing new.