NASCAR race control has been forced to make many critical decisions over the last season, and some of their calls have been questioned by drivers and fans.
Sunday’s rain-shortened Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway was a huge hit with drivers and fans alike, but the final caution, coupled with some of the decisions made by NASCAR, left some scratching their heads.
Running race control for any NASCAR event is not an easy task. There are many things to keep track of at once, including the cars, the weather, and potential debris or oil on the track.
In the past, race control has generally done a solid job managing these things and making sure that each event produces the best racing possible, all while keeping everyone safe.
But in the last year or so, we have seen several decisions made by race control that have been debated in NASCAR circles. While some may have been the right decisions in hindsight, others have left a lot to be desired.
The most notable decision in recent months that sparked controversy among drivers and fans happened during last year’s regular season finale at Daytona International Speedway, when rain had been reported in turns one and two but no caution flag was thrown.
Shortly thereafter, a massive accident occurred in that part of the track, taking out almost everyone except for eventual race winner Austin Dillon.
The decision to keep the race green was met with heavy criticism from both drivers and fans, with Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick being among those most critical.
The logic behind NASCAR’s decision to keep that particular race green was pretty obvious to most, however.
With this race being the final race before the playoffs, it marked the last opportunity for drivers on the outside looking in to snag a victory to keep their championship hopes alive.
There were 22 laps remaining, and with a three-wide battle for the lead and several winless drivers at the front, NASCAR had plenty of reasons to keep the race green for as long as possible.
On top of this, the race had already been postponed by a day due to rain, and no one, including NASCAR, was in the mood for rain to once again spoil the race.
Had NASCAR thrown a caution just before the accident, there almost certainly would have been an equal amount of criticism for breaking up an awesome race for the lead. It was a no-win situation for NASCAR, regardless of the path they took.
The past few weeks have shown the effects this accident has had on some of race control’s key decisions, and once again, those decisions have been met with criticism.
From the get-go, rain was set to be a factor during the race weekend at the brand-new Chicago Street Course. While rain tires were available, they can only do so much when standing water has popped up all over the track.
The first crucial set of decisions for race control came on Saturday afternoon during the Xfinity Series race. The race was red flagged due to lightning in the area, which is required. But after lightning moved out of the area, there was an opportunity to restart the race.
However, several issues were still in play. By the time the race could have resumed, most of the fans had left after being instructed to evacuate the area, and there was limited daylight remaining.
At this point, 25 of the 55 laps had been completed, so the race had yet to hit halfway (or the end of stage two). So it couldn’t be deemed complete. As a result, the decision was made to move it to Sunday morning before the Cup Series race.
However, Sunday morning brought torrential downpours which covered the track with puddles of standing water. Even with rain tires, the standing water presented a serious safety hazard to everybody.
With the start time for the Cup Series race quickly approaching, race control was left with few options, and they ultimately made the rare decision to declare the race official, despite the fact that it hadn’t met the usual lap requirement.
As expected, many were critical of the decision and questioned why the race hadn’t been moved to Monday, when the weather was supposed to be sunny.
The logic behind not doing so was pretty simple. This track is not a “normal” track where NASCAR can easily move part of a race to Monday. It is a street circuit located on some of the busiest streets in the third largest city in the country, and the teardown of the track was set to begin on Monday. It was crucial for the city to re-open those streets.
It would have been one thing if they needed to move an entire race, even if it was just the Xfinity Series race, to Monday.
But moving a race that had just 30 laps remaining and was just three laps short of halfway the halfway point? That decision would have undoubtedly been met with heavy criticism from Chicago residents and officials, which would have put an unnecessary stain on the entire weekend.
Then came the Cup Series race on the same day, and once again, rain and standing water were a major issue. As the expected start time came and went with rain still coming down hard, NASCAR faced the same safety issues they had faced that morning.
However, just 15 minutes before NASCAR intended to postpone the race to Monday, the rain let up and the skies began to clear, and the race was able to go green about 45 minutes late.
However, after multiple early caution flags, it became clear that there would not be enough daylight to complete all 100 laps around the 12-turn, 2.2-mile (3.541-kilometer) circuit. Shortly after the end of stage two, race control announced that the race would be shortened to 75 laps.
Much like after the previous decisions, criticism ensued. Some were critical of the decision to start the race, and some were critical of the decision to shorten it, specifically the timing of the latter.
Christopher Bell, who had dominated the early stages of the race, was among the drivers whose pit strategies for the race had been ruined due to the shortening of the event. Bell and his team had all disagreed with NASCAR’s decision to start the race that day, and they disagreed with the timing of the decision to shorten it.
However, other drivers, including Kyle Busch, knew that there was a strong chance of the race being shortened, and they took that into account when building their race strategy. The call paid off. Busch finished in fifth place, despite an accident on lap three which brought out the first caution flag of the event.
But all in all, the call to run the race Sunday was the right one, considering many fans would be leaving the next morning. Much like the situation surrounding the Xfinity Series, race control would have faced criticism had they opted to move the race to Monday.
However, this past weekend’s Cup Series race at Atlanta once again left some questioning race control’s decisions.
From the early stages of Sunday’s race at Atlanta, it was once again evident that weather would very much be a factor throughout the night.
Despite this, the first two stages of the race were run without any stoppages. However, by the time stage two was completed, the rain was extremely close to the track, and it was only a matter of time before it hit.
But the race went back green, and after a 15-lap dash, the caution flag once again flew on lap 178 for an accident involving Ryan Preece, Bubba Wallace, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Despite the accident, there was very little cleanup that needed to be done, and it should have been a relatively quick caution.
However, NASCAR instead took an abnormally long time under yellow and did not open pit road for multiple laps, despite the fact that the pits were clear and it wasn’t raining. Several drivers near the front, including Michael McDowell, were almost out of fuel and needed to pit before the restart.
But after a few more caution laps, sprinkles did start to hit the track, and NASCAR quickly brought the field down pit road and declared the race official just a few minutes later. Just 185 of the 260 scheduled laps had been completed around the four-turn, 1.54-mile (2.478-kilometer) Hampton, Georgia oval.
While it was the right call for NASCAR to declare the race official when they did, there had been a solid opportunity to get in at least a few more laps.
Instead, light sprinkles arrived, and they led to a steadier rain that effectively ended the race. While more green flag laps might not have made much of a difference in the final results, the decision put a bit of a damper on what was otherwise a fantastic race.
The reason behind NASCAR’s decision not to restart the race was almost certainly to avoid having a repeat of what happened at Daytona last year. However, this particular scenario was different.
It was evident that the track was not going to be soaked as rapidly, and the grip levels would not have fallen off within a lap. At a minimum, a caution could have been thrown as soon as the sprinkles were reported, which still might have allowed for a few more laps of racing without any massive rain-caused accident.
Regardless, running a NASCAR event in any of the top three series is an extremely challenging task, and every decision will be under a microscope. While race control may have made some recent mistakes, there have also been just as many if not more wise decisions made on the fly.
Luckily, weather will not affect every race this season, and we can all hope that we don’t have to worry about these tough decisions having to be made moving forward.