What do Regan Smith, Justin Haley, and Matt DiBenedetto have in common? What do Tony Stewart, Kyle Larson, and Denny Hamlin have in common?
The former group are NASCAR drivers who had their shots at race wins gone for reasons involving the double-yellow line, while the latter are those who won in such finishes.
The Cup Series‘ YellaWood 500 at Talladega Superspeedway ended in controversy when Hamlin edged out DiBenedetto in a chaotic finish for his seventh win of the season. However, many pointed out that Hamlin had dipped below the double-yellow line in the tri-oval; the line was introduced in 2001 to prevent drivers from being too aggressive when making passes in superspeedway races and potentially trigger a massive wreck. If a driver went below the line, he is not allowed to gain any positions and will receive a penalty.
The rule would be tested on various occasions in the nearly two decades since as drivers have argued they had been forced underneath the line. Perhaps the most infamous instance came at the 2008 fall Talladega race, where Smith lost his maiden Cup victory for going under the line to Stewart, but defended the move as Stewart pushing him down. Ten years later, Haley was in position to win his first Xfinity Series event at fellow plate track Daytona International Speedway, but his left-side tyres went below the line as he made the winning pass, nullifying the victory.
More of such drama came in the 2019 fall Talladega race weekend. The Truck Series race saw Johnny Sauter lose the victory to Spencer Boyd after the former forced Riley Herbst below the line. In the following day’s Cup race, Ryan Blaney went underneath after making contact with Ryan Newman coming to the checkered flag; with the momentum on the inside, Blaney edged out Newman for the win, while the bump meant his move did not result in a penalty.
In the case of Sunday’s race, DiBenedetto would lose his runner-up finish after NASCAR ruled he had forced William Byron and Hamlin below the yellow line, relegating him to twenty-first. Chase Elliott was also penalised for dropping under it, but it was rescinded and his fifth-place finish was restored. Joey Logano was slapped with penalties for the same infraction during the race.
After the race, Smith retweeted his disdain for the line rule that he had initially posted after the 2019 race.
Fans, media, and drivers also voiced their displeasure. Jeff Gluck of The Athletic regarded the rule as “painfully stupid”, while Fox Sports’ Bob Pockrass tweeted it he understood the “need for the rule but I also would have understood if NASCAR didn’t penalize anyone. If everything [is] so clear-cut, then there wouldn’t have been any changes in the decisions. This is one of those I don’t like this rule but don’t necessarily know the best alternative.”
“I got a great idea for everybody: how about we just get rid of the yellow-line rule? Nobody really wants to see the races come down to these types of decisions, and I don’t think it’s gonna crash more cars than we crashed today,” NBC analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr. said after the race. “It’s kind of frustrating to have to make these decisions. I know NASCAR doesn’t want to be put in this position, so let’s just get rid of it from here on out. Just let these guys race it out at least in the last few laps. They’re going down there, below the yellow line, anyway.
“It’s not fun, but definitely kind of agree with the decision they made as part of the rule and how it’s written. But we could just get rid of it altogether.
Reigning Truck Series champion Matt Crafton endorsed Earnhardt’s statement, tweeting that he “1000000% agree(s that drivers should) self police”.
Despite the controversy, NASCAR Vice President of Competition Scott Miller asserted the rule will remain in place.
“It’s pretty clear cut, the #21 hung the left and drove those guys down below the line. We had called that twice on the #22 car during the race, so nothing different there. On the #24 and #11 being down there, by our judgment, they were down there to avoid a wreck. On the #9, he obviously just pulled left past underneath the yellow, so I think all of it was, from our vantage point, fairly clear cut.”
In response to a question about if the rule would at least be waived for the final lap or overtime, Miller remained adamant on keeping it, explaining “there would probably be even more wrecks and we certainly don’t need more wrecks than what we saw today.”