In a race finish that will go down as one of the messiest and most controversial in NASCAR history, Joey Logano survived the mayhem to sweep the Contender Round, beating Dale Earnhardt Jr. by a nose to knock him out of the 2015 Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Not since the 1990 First Union 400 at North Wilkesboro Speedway has the result of a NASCAR race been under such a cloud of confusion and frustration on all parties – made worse by the fact this race was the final race in the Contender Round, which would see four of the remaining 12 Chase drivers eliminated before next weekend’s race at Martinsville Speedway. Dale Earnhardt. Jr needed a win at a track he has historically been strong at, as did Matt Kenseth after his shenanigans with Logano last week. Throw into the mix NASCAR’s decision to reduce the Green-White-Checker finish attempts from three down to one, in an attempt to avoid a repeat of Austin Dillon’s scary crash at Daytona in July, and the stage was set for a thrilling and tense conclusion.
And for 185 laps, that’s precisely what we got.
The race went a staggering 132 laps before a caution, in which we saw Earnhardt Jr boss large parts of the race before being slapped with a pass-through penalty for men over the pit wall too soon. Just as he was about to be lapped, however, Justin Allgaier’s engine went south, inadvertently saving the #88 Chevrolet’s race. It also helped another Chaser in Martin Truex Jr., who had lost the main draft and a lap in the process. The race continued in surprisingly well-behaved fashion, with Denny Hamlin becoming the first Chase driver to hit real trouble in bizarre fashion – the emergency escape hatch in the roof of his car came loose and earned a mechanical black flag, costing him 3 laps in pitstops to try and tape the hatch down.
After the final round of green-flag pitstops, Greg Biffle wound up with a 40-second lead over the entire field, having not pitted at all when everyone else did with 20 laps to go. All of a sudden, he had drafting help with a few other lapped cars, a huge lead – and a chance to win the race, provided he could stretch his fuel for nearly 50 laps. It created a surreal scenario where a huge pack of cars, including Logano, Earnhardt Jr, Keselowski, Kyle Busch and more, were fighting hard for second place – which could become first at any moment. As the laps ticked down, Biffle’s #16 Ford kept trucking, and the unlikeliest victory all season seemed on, until a late caution for Jamie McMurray blowing up down the backstraight with 6 laps to go scuppered his bold strategy.
Then the fun began.
Logano and Earnhardt Jr led the field down for what would be the first – and only – Green-White-Checker finish, but Kyle Larson and Jimmie Johnson both spun out in the tri-oval as the cars accelerated. NASCAR hastily ruled that the restart didn’t count as the caution flag was back out before they crossed the start-finish line. So attempt 1 of the one attempt at a Green-White-Checker didn’t count. You with me so far? Because now it gets good.
On the ‘first’ restart attempt, Kevin Harvick’s #4 car was suffering from an ailing engine, and he voluntarily moved out of line on the restart. As the field came to the Green-White-Checker (again), Harvick this time waited in line, but didn’t get up to speed at all – then appeared to turn right into Trevor Bayne as the #6 Ford went to pass him on the outside, triggering an enormous wreck that this time finished the race for good. Controversy erupted, firstly as to who on Earth was in front at the time of caution coming out – NASCAR eventually ruling Logano was the leader, just, therefore seeing Earnhardt Jr dumped out of the Chase – and secondly whether Harvick had caused the incident safe in the knowledge that doing so would preserve his spot in the next Chase round.
And whilst NASCAR, at time of writing, has seen no evidence of wrongdoing on Harvick’s part, fellow drivers didn’t pull any punches once this fiasco had concluded.
‘That’s a crappy way for Harvick to have to get in the Chase is to wreck somebody – what I believe to be on purpose – maybe it wasn’t,” Bayne said. “The restart before that he had engine problems and got out of the way. I think he realized if the caution came out he was gonna be fine, so I go by and get hooked in the left-rear. Harvick is a really good driver. I think he knows the limits of his car and where it’s at, so that’s why I think it was intentional.”
Two of the eliminated Chasers were also heavily critical, with Hamlin tweeting: ‘What a joke we have a car with no motor wreck the field to end the race. Complete crap. Sorry to anyone who spent $ coming to this circus’. Team-mate Kenseth was similarly condemning: “It wasn’t really racing. It was just a lot of games going on. You can hardly blame a guy for doing it. He’s going to make it if he does that and wrecks people going slow, or he’s not going to make it if it goes green for a few laps.” At time of writing, Ryan Newman and Dale Earnhardt Jr are the other two drivers eliminated.
Overall, on a day where race fans were treated to perhaps the finest US Grand Prix in history, this was a horrendous day for NASCAR. It was a day when a decision they made in good faith backfired badly (the one GWC attempt both failing to prevent late wrecks and give fans a green-flag finish to decide the round) and drivers were accused of resorting to causing potentially dangerous crashes in order to advance. And ultimately, it’s the Chase itself that comes off the worst – for many fans, if this is how the biggest prize in stock car racing is to be decided, then it’s time to go home.
NASCAR, these are not the ‘Game 7 Moments’ you are looking for.