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Flat Spot On: Chaos at Talladega, Again

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, October 5 2020

The wrecks piled up at Talladega on Sunday. Some of the biggest stars in the sport were involved. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Andrew Coppley)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

You can have Grantland Rice’s four horsemen outlined against a gray autumnal sky. Take Major League fall ball and postpone it another day. I grant you the perspiring arts of the NBA without so much as a quibble. 

Give me cars outlined against a blue October sky on the last lap in Turn 3 at Talladega during stock car racing’s playoffs. Four horsepower men hanging a left at 200 mph, throwing sparks, raking, side-drafting and dodging with far more quickness than any Brooklyn dodger avoiding a street car, or even Jack Robinson.

The heroes on Sunday were named Matty D., Buescher, William and Denny. This after so many others joined the dearly departed behind the wall – 10 before the start of Act III. Once the race was over, following three Overtimes, nearly half the starting field was behind the wall, unable to continue.

On the last lap of a chaotic NASCAR Cup race including so many Big Ones we all lost count, they ably raised enough Cain on their way to the Start/Finish to stir up the umpiring gods from above. The bolts thrown down by officials ruled this internecine battle among racing brothers was to be writ in the name of Denny – the good ol’ Hamlin boy out of Joe Gibbs Racing. 

On this day, few escaped the turmoil and boil of the draft without rips and creases in the brightly colored body wraps or a do-over of duct tape. One must admit that the winning car, mostly in valiant white, also happened to be one of the few with nary a sign of collision. The outcome will be regarded more seriously than, say, questions looming over why Miami has no Heat in the current playoffs of the dribbling variety. Or, whether a bat should be placed aside before jogging to first after a circuit clout?

Beyond how the race turned out, there’s a significant rule involved. For that reason, I suspect this race around the 2.66-mile oval circuit rising majestically from the plains of Alabama will be debated for a long time. Probably longer than voting by mail. Or whether Kyle Busch deserves such bad luck as he is suffering in 2020. It will be debated at least until the green and checkered flags fall at the Daytona 500 next February, where the Yellow Line Rule, now an all-caps thing, will be revisited again. 

The real problem leading to chaos on Sunday was COVID-19. Don’t laugh. Generally, when NASCAR officials have a couple of practice sessions before they drop the green, unlike this year’s “run what you unloaded” rule, there’s an opportunity to tweak things like horsepower or to re-emphasize that tandem drafts will not be permitted. NASCAR might have even revoked some of the new front-end cooling teams have come up with. Aggressive bump-drafting by those with better cooling (which also helps horsepower as well as easing concerns about following too closely) led to the wrecks, which led to more duct-taped cars and wobbly suspensions at 200 mph and more wrecks.

The problem was drivers not dreading the yellow line during the race on this day, which included a penalty to Joey Logano for knocking another driver below it. The yellow line was an innocent bystander in my view. (Or, perhaps, an innocent bi-standard, ha-ha, given the fact it’s actually two parallel lines.) The rule has been there for two decades and was originally suggested by Talladega maestro Dale Earnhardt Sr., although son Dale Jr., now a commentator and himself a Talladega expert, took exception to it post-race on Sunday.

It’s about safety. Under the yellow line rule, whether a driver is forced down to the apron or goes there by his own volition, a single car is usually able to peaceably return to the line of traffic without wrecking the entire field. Let drivers constantly race on the apron without the out-of-bounds described by the yellow line and all hell will break loose far more often.

There is no question that leader Matt DiBenedetto turned left on the final trip through Turn 3 to keep William Byron from passing him down low. In other words, he tried to squeeze his adversary between his car and the yellow line, using it as a pick. (Leader DiBenedetto’s first and more costly mistake had already taken place. He left the door open for Byron by blocking the high line too long.) 

But did Denny Hamlin advance his position by dodging the collision of DiBenedetto and Byron, which threw sparks into his front fender? 

A pause here to point out a major difference between calling balls and strikes in baseball and in NASCAR. In baseball, an umpire’s call on balls and strikes is final, even when the replay at home shows he blew the call. In NASCAR, the replay is reviewed before the call is made – the same tape that teams and fans see. It’s a built-in formula for debate of biblical, if not eternal, proportions.

The tape shows Hamlin was in fourth place when he went below the yellow line. As the three cars in front of him slid up the track, Hamlin emerged with at least a tie for the first-place position entering the tri-oval bend. Did he advance his position? Yes. Is that against the rule as written, that a driver cannot advance his position while below the yellow line? Not, in my opinion, if a driver is forced down there and has no other option. 

It would be absurd to say Hamlin should have backed off and returned to fourth place due to an incident not of his own making, especially on the last lap. Had he been able to stay in the lower groove without going below the yellow line, his momentum would have carried him to the front – due to his adversaries’ sliding after colliding and taking a third car, driven by Chris Buescher, up the track. In this sense, Hamlin didn’t advance his position by going below the yellow line. Did he fudge by not immediately moving back up on the banking? Yes. But he maintained a straight line for a reasonable distance and rejoined accordingly without putting his car or anyone else’s in jeopardy.

Approaching the finish line, Hamlin sustained his virtual tie for first place with DiBenedetto by breaking a side-draft attempt by Byron and then got his winning margin of 0.023 seconds by jumping in front of the two cars in the lower groove at the finish line. In other words, he made three heads-up moves on the last lap, starting with initially sticking with the low line on the apron in the Turn 3-4 incident to not break his momentum. 

In the other last-lap debate, which helped further fuel the, ahem, discussion, Chase Elliott was forced below the yellow line by Buescher, ruled NASCAR, meaning the latter driver went to the end of the lead lap in scoring. NASCAR flip-flopped on that ruling about who finished fifth, first penalizing Elliott, whose Hendrick Motorsports team appealed and “won” the ruling after a review.

Was NASCAR confronted with situations that might not have squared with its own rulebook? Yes. Are fans taking exception in social media to NASCAR asserting its authority once again? Yes. Are fans of DiBenedetto righteously outraged after his post-race penalty dropped him from second place to 21st for hitting Byron and forcing him down to the yellow line? Yes. Was everybody, including onlookers, worn out by this non-stop, spellbinding wreck-fest at high speed initially decided by hundreds of a second before the runner-up was penalized? Definitely.

In the end, I think there was some biblical wisdom in the air. Cain thought God’s choice to laud Abel betrayed a commitment to equality before His law and was outraged enough to kill his brother. But Abel’s choice to make an animal sacrifice was far better when it came to respecting God’s wishes than his farmer brother Cain’s seeds and grass.

When it came to a glorious finish underneath October skies between four horsepower men on the last lap, Hamlin’s choices were better and far more consistent with the rulebook than those of DiBenedetto.

(Editor’s note: Jonathan Ingram is in his 44th year of covering motor racing. He is the author of two books on Dale Earnhardt, including his current release “CRASH!” For more information, visit www.jingrambooks.com.)

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, October 5 2020
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