NASCAR: The controversial moment that almost happened

Bristol Motor Speedway, NASCAR (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)
Bristol Motor Speedway, NASCAR (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images) /

Confusion about the running order during Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway nearly created a finish with unnecessary controversy.

Drivers and TV personalities were confused when Sunday night’s NASCAR Cup Series dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway was delayed by rain after the end of stage two.

While Chase Briscoe won the stage, he and several other drivers pitted following the lap 150 stage end, while Kyle Busch led a contingent of drivers who stayed out.

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Teams completed their service and the field started moving before the race was stopped for rain. While Busch was lined up behind the pace car, Briscoe was still scored as the leader.

Fox NASCAR lead announcer Mike Joy briefly explained the special procedure for this particular race, reminding viewers that these pit stops during the stage break were non-competitive pit stops.

“We have not yet restarted the race, scoring has not yet resumed,” said Joy. “We’re going to wait and hear from NASCAR as to who really is the race leader.”

The confusion didn’t end there.

“I thought if you pitted and other cars didn’t, you came out behind those cars,” said guest analyst Darrell Waltrip moments later. “So, I don’t see how you can be the leader if you pit and the other guys don’t.”

Joy later explained the procedure in full, citing NASCAR’s head of scoring. Since timing and scoring were frozen at the end of the stage, and caution laps didn’t count, Briscoe was still scored as the leader at that moment, despite having made a pit stop.

Confusion about the running order seemed common among drivers, specifically those who stayed out.

“I’m really confused right now, they have us scored 12th,” said Austin Dillon in a TV interview during the rain delay. “We stayed out because of the rain, it’s raining, and we’re still scored 12th. So, I’m wanting to be fifth, where we’re actually located, because we did cross the start-finish line.”

Another driver who stayed out was defending race winner Joey Logano, who was scored seventh during the rain delay.

“I don’t know where we finish if it keeps raining, I assume it’s second (behind Busch) because we stayed out,” said Logano in a TV interview. “I assume that’s how the rules work, typically, but I don’t know, I’m hearing different things now.”

For every other race on the schedule, pit stops are competitive and live, meaning that spots can be gained or lost on pit road. Therefore, timing and scoring are not frozen during stage breaks.

In this scenario, if pit stops are completed but a restart hasn’t happened, the drivers who did not pit would be scored as the leaders.

A similar situation happened in the July 2019 race at Daytona International Speedway, when Justin Haley stayed out during a caution to take the lead before the race was delayed due to lightning and ultimately shortened without ever restarting.

It led to the first Cup Series win for Haley and the underfunded Spire Motorsports team.

But this past Sunday, since pit stops were not competitive and timing and scoring had not yet resumed, it wasn’t Busch in line for the win; it was Briscoe still classified as being out front.

Ultimately, the race did resume, and Busch ended up winning, ironically due to a last-lap incident involving Briscoe. But there certainly would have been some controversy had the race not continued.

While NASCAR has had controversial finishes before, this scenario should never have become a debate.

Controversial finishes typically surround contact between drivers which affects the outcome of a race.

An example happened in last September’s race on the regular Bristol Motor Speedway surface, when Chase Elliott and Kevin Harvick made contact while battling for the lead with 35 laps to go. Elliott needed to pit for a flat tire after the incident and raced Harvick hard when he returned to the track, despite being multiple laps down.

Kyle Larson ended up winning, and here was a post-race altercation between Elliott and Harvick. That disagreement is what you’d expect from that type of finish.

On the other hand, there have been two finishes this year that could’ve been considered controversial.

Ross Chastain made contact with A.J. Allmendinger on the final lap at Circuit of the Americas, causing Allmendinger to hit Alex Bowman and then spin into a gravel run-off area. Chastain won the race and Allmendinger finished in 33rd place, but Allmendinger didn’t blame Chastain for the move.

The other finish happened in Sunday’s race, when Briscoe drove deep into the final turn while battling Tyler Reddick for the win. Briscoe spun into Reddick, who was able to turn back around and cross the finish line, albeit in second place.

The two drivers both took responsibility after the race, Reddick for having allowed Briscoe to close the gap and Briscoe for making the move, and both drivers instantly moved on.

While these are the types of finishes that are usually controversial due to the grey area regarding how drivers should race each other, it was ironically a potential finish with a clear-cut rule that generated the most buzz.

The conversation about the running order dominated the rain delay coverage and would have been a major storyline had the race ended there.

While the drivers who stayed out felt robbed by their position on the leaderboard, it was clearly explained by NASCAR ahead of the race that the event would feature non-competitive pit stops, with timing and scoring halted between the end of each stage and the ensuing restart.

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There should be no controversy when it comes to a finish decided by pre-determined rules, yet that’s what almost happened in Sunday night’s race.