NASCAR: We Screwed Up

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, May 24 2022

Ryan Blaney takes a controversial checked flag to end Sunday’s All-Star Race at Texas Motor Speedway. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

FORT WORTH, Texas _ A top NASCAR official has admitted that Sunday night’s 38th annual All-Star Race, a non-point event typically played-out under a revised set of gimmicky rules, was needlessly thrown into controversy by a late-race caution at Texas Motor Speedway.

The checkered flag was waving and Ryan Blaney was beginning to celebrate a $1-million payday when the track’s caution lights flashed for Ricky Stenhouse Jr., whose car had bounced against the outside wall in Turn 2 and well behind the leaders.

Blaney was in the process of lowering his driver’s side safety window netting when he was told the procedural rules for this year’s event stated it must end under green. Replays showed that Blaney had not crossed the finish line before the caution lights flashed, sending the event into NASCAR overtime.

Blaney, who struggled to re-attach the window netting, re-focused and went on to defeat Denny Hamlin under a green-white-checkered flag scenario that extended the total to 140 laps. 

“Obviously, I think everybody knows that we probably prematurely called that yellow flag,” Scott Miller, NASCAR’s senior VP for competition, said in a post-race interview. “The way that works in the tower…we all watch and we saw the car (Stenhouse’s No. 17 Ford) and mentioned the car against the wall, riding the wall down back the back straightway. The race director looked up, and I’m not sure what he saw, but he immediately put it out. Wish we wouldn’t have done that.”

So, Blaney basically was forced to win the race twice. The Team Penske star was about to take the checkered flag on Lap 132 of the originally scheduled 125 when the night got bizarre. 

“We were cruising there and I just wanted to get to the white (flag) to have it covered and then the caution came out,” said Blaney, 28, driver of the No. 12 Menards Ford Mustang. “I thought it was like any other race.

I don’t know, I think we just got locked in our heads of the leader takes the white flag, the next flag ends the race. I guess that wasn’t the case. But we all thought it. I thought it. (Crew chief) Jonathan (Hassler) got on the radio and said ‘Congrats!’ So, I got to the backstretch and I took the window net down. Then they’re saying that the race isn’t over, and you need to end under green. That rule was never kind of relayed to us.

“So it was kind of short-lived panic mode in my spot of like, ‘How the hell am I going to get this window net back up?’ because it almost takes two people to do it outside the car, let alone me and my scrawny arms inside the car sitting down and not being able to get a lot of leverage on it. I could get millimeters away from latching it and I had to give up. I was able to get it latched finally enough to where it was up and sealed, and NASCAR deemed it safe.

“I appreciate NASCAR for not making us come down pit road to fix it and letting me get it clipped back again to where we could stay out there. I’m really glad we ended up winning that after that last caution.”

Had Blaney been unable to re-latch the window net before the green flag for OT, there was a possibility NASCAR could have ordered him to pit for his crew to handle it and relinquish the lead. It would have been a crushing blow since Blaney had led every lap of the scheduled 50-lap final stage and ensuing overtime.

Blaney was followed across the line by Hamlin and his No. 11 FedEx Express Toyota Camry and Team Penske rookie Austin Cindric in the No. 2 Keystone Light Ford. Blaney, who led a race-high 84 laps, won by a margin of 0.266-seconds.

Hamlin, meanwhile, strongly suggested that NASCAR should have followed its rulebook to the letter as a matter of safety.

“You know, it’s tough because he deserved to win the race,” Hamlin said. “But if you mess up and you break a rule _ not intentionally _ but there’s rules and we have rules in place for safety. I nearly crashed him off of Turn 2 when I got squeezed there. If I send him into traffic and he’s got no window net, then what, right? Luckily, that didn’t happen and NASCAR avoids another controversy because there wasn’t a wreck in a car with no window net.”

Asked specifically if Blaney should have been black-flagged (no longer scored), Hamlin said, “That’s the rule. I don’t know what we’re talking about here. This is not a judgement call by me. This is just _ that’s the rule. It’s unfortunate for him. Very, very unfortunate for him, but it’s the rule. You have to play by the rules.

“This is not a Denny Hamlin judgement call. This is a play-by-the rules call.”

Hamlin noted that his crew chief, Chris Gabehart, was among team members serving a four-race suspension for a safety-related infraction during a pit stop in the rained-delayed event at Dover Motor Speedway earlier this month. Hamlin’s car lost a left front wheel that rolled down the track at the exit of pit road. 

Hamlin allowed that the Stenhouse caution, the eighth of the race, was his last best chance of overtaking Blaney.

“I thought that it was an opportunity, otherwise the No. 12 was going to win the race and he was probably 100 yards from it, I don’t know,” Hamlin said. “I’m just frustrated that we have a rule. It can’t be a convenience rule. It’s just frustrating because we just have no consistency in our officiating.”

During his post-race presser in the track’s infield media center, Blaney said he felt “perfectly safe” during the two-lap OT dash but understood Hamlin’s logic.

“I’d be upset, too, if I was in his position,” said Blaney, the son of former Cup regular Dave Blaney. “You’re running second and the guy makes a mistake and puts the window net down, and you expect it to be handed to you and the leader get black-flagged.

“I can understand his frustration for sure, but obviously I’m not going to say I’m frustrated about it. It worked out for us. We had the best car all night. We were leading the race three seconds before the last caution.

“But I can understand where he’s coming from. That’s just a product of running second compared to winning. He would be over the moon elated in my position if he won the race and I’d be ticked off just like he was if he was second, so just kind of depends on the spot, so can’t blame him.”

Blaney, who never had finished higher than fifth in four previous All-Star appearances, gave Team Penske its first ASR win since 2016 and fourth overall.

Team Penske’s Joey Logano finished fourth in his No. 22 Shell Pennzoil Ford, followed by Daniel Suarez in the No. 99 Freeway Insurance Chevy fielded by TrackHouse Racing.

Prosper, Texas, native Chris Buescher finished eighth in his No. 17 Fastenal Ford fielded by Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing after advancing into the final via a victory in Stage 2 of the 50-lap NASCAR Open.

Early-on, it appeared the event’s second edition at TMS would be all about Kyle Busch. The two-time Cup champ from Joe Gibbs Racing, who qualified on-pole Saturday, went wire-to-wire as he led all 25 laps to win Stage 1. Busch continued his relentless pace in Stage 2, leading the first 18 laps of the 25-lap segment before calamity struck and knocked out three primary contenders.

Busch had slowed on the front stretch due to a right rear tire going down on his No. 18 M&Ms Crunchy Cookie Toyota Camry, which visibly wiggled entering the dogleg portion. In a blink, TrackHouse Racing’s Ross Chastain ran up on and over the car of the 2017 All-Star winner at approximately 185 mph. Chastain then careened across the track, where he collected 2020 All-Star winner Chase Elliott near Turn 1, knocking all three drivers out of the race.

Chastain, racing third in his No. 1 Worldwide Express Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, clipped Busch’s car in the left rear. The contact momentarily lifted Chastain’s car onto its left side tires. The car slammed to the pavement and then hit Elliott.

Chastain, a two-time winner in what has become a breakout season, took responsibility for the carnage. “It felt like the driver of the No. 1 car (his Chevy) chose the wrong lane to get in,” Chastain said. “Our Chevy was tight all night and we were just managing the tightness. I saw Kyle have an issue with a tire down. I guessed left and I should have guessed right. It was a big hit into Kyle. It was a tough break, but we had a fast car.”

Elliott, the 2020 Cup champion, became an innocent victim of the melee. “I saw the No. 18 (Busch) had a problem; and then I saw the No. 1 (Chastain) hit him really hard,” said Elliott, driver of the No. 9 NAPA Auto Parts Camaro fielded by Hendrick Motorsports. “I just didn’t give him enough room. I knew he was going to go straight. I just didn’t realize he was going to go that far right that quick. I just kind of misjudged it. It was really avoidable on my end. I just kind of messed up and didn’t get the gap shot quick enough.”

Just prior to the multi-car incident, another former All-Star winner from Hendrick Motorsports was eliminated. Reigning Cup champ Kyle Larson, a two-time winner and looking to become the third driver in All-Star history to win back-to-back events, saw his race come to an abrupt end 13 laps into the stage when a tire issue led to heavy contact on his No. 5 HendrickCars.com Camaro with the Turn 4 wall.

Cindric, the Cup rookie who earned an All-Star berth by winning the Daytona 500 in February, took advantage and claimed the Stage 2 win over Blaney.

Racing began with the All-Star Open _ a three-segment/50-lap event featuring 16 drivers looking to transfer into the finale. Stenhouse led all 20 laps of the first segment in his No. 47 Kroger/Viva Towels Chevrolet to advance. Buescher trailed in second the entire segment but rallied to secure his own spot in the final by winning the second 20-lapper.

“It’s cool to be able to race our way in with our Fastenal Ford Mustang,” said Buescher, who also qualified for the 2017 All-Star Race. “That was some aggressive racing like we know it is going to be with these short runs when we come to the All-Star event.”

Native Mexican Suarez won the third Open segment to advance, with Erik Jones earning the 24th spot in his No. 43 FOCUSfactor Camaro fielded by Petty GMS Motorsports via the fan vote.

Team Penske also showed speed in the Pit Stop Challenge, which was held between the second and third stages. Logano’s crew paced the field in the mandatory four-tire stop with an overall time of 36.353-seconds that included driving in and out of pit lane.

Team Penske flexed more muscle when Blaney won Stage 3 in overtime over Cindric and Logano. The success positioned all three Team Penske drivers to start the final stage among the top five and set up what became a dramatic, and needlessly controversial, finish.

(Editor’s Note: John Sturbin is a Texas-based journalist specializing in motorsports. During a near 30-year career with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, he won the Bloys Britt Award for top motorsports story of the year (1991) as judged by The Associated Press; received the National Hot Rod Association’s Media Award (1997) and several in-house Star-Telegram honors. He also was inaugural recipient of the Texas Motor Speedway Excellence in Journalism Award (2009). His list of freelance clients includes Texas Motor Speedway, the Dallas Morning News, New York Newsday, Rome (N.Y) Daily Sentinel, Corpus Christi (Texas) Caller Times, NASCAR Wire Service and Ford Racing). 


| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, May 24 2022
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