Monday, 23 March 2015

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series - Full Race - 500 at Phoenix

NASCAR didn’t conspire to prevent Kurt Busch from winning Sunday; it was merely following its consistently inconsistent policies.
Quick, someone grab tinfoil. Someone else cue the black helicopters. And would someone please instruct Brian France to go sit behind the grassy knoll. Because if you're to use social media as your barometer -- always a dangerous preposition -- NASCAR most certainly conspired to fix the ending of Sunday's race at Auto Club Speedway.
The controversy centers around a debris caution NASCAR issued on what would have been the final lap of the Auto Club 400. Thinking a piece of metal was in Turn 3 and erring on the side of, well, caution, officials waved the yellow flag to setup a green-white-checkered restart.
Conspiracy theorists contend NASCAR did this because Kurt Busch was leading and headed towards certain victory. It would have been Busch's first win in just his second start since returning from a highly publicized suspension, following allegations he assaulted an ex-girlfriend last September.
The contention is that Busch would have been unseemly to have in Victory Lane, after a Delaware Family Court commissioner determined he "more likely than not" grabbed his former girlfriend by the throat and smashed her head against the wall. After all, NASCAR is a family sport with an image to uphold and sponsors to protect.
Not to disappoint those who believe Big Brother colluded to take victory from Busch, but there were no vast conspiracies Sunday. What NASCAR has is a consistency problem, not an integrity problem.
Too often in similar circumstances one decision contradicts another made earlier. And that contradiction only fuels the perception NASCAR changes its rules and procedures to help whatever narrative best suits its interests.

Sunday for example, the controversial caution NASCAR issued with Busch out front was because officials spotted what was thought to be a piece of metal. OK, on the surface that's understandable. ACS is a high-speed track and a punctured tire could be catastrophic. When in doubt, safety trumps all.
Why then was there no caution when Greg Biffle crashed on the final lap of the second green-white-checkered restart, right before Keselowski completed the deciding pass of Busch in Turn 2? From NASCAR's perspective, if Biffle can get going the race will have a natural conclusion and not end under the yellow flag. Something all involved want to see. That is exactly what transpired Sunday.
"I want to be clear," said Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. "If we can race back and we don't believe we're putting the competitor in harm's way, we're going to do that. But we'll always err on the side of safety."
Where NASCAR leaves itself open for criticism is if caution is warranted for a fleck of metal, a yellow flag would seem necessary for a wrecked car that surely left a debris trail in its wake. If safety is the overriding concern, then presumably the race should be stopped immediately for a crash even if all involved drive away. Any decision otherwise would seem to be a contradiction against this stance.
NASCAR does itself no favors by consistently being inconsistent. During the season-opening Daytona 500 a final lap multi-car crash occurred on the backstretch. The yellow lights came on and what was setting up to be a classic finish ended under caution. Contrast that with Sunday's accident where Biffle not only wrecked, but in an area where the leaders would go through at speed. What happened? No caution.
"We have to look at the incident and the safety of the drivers first and foremost," O'Donnell said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. "When we looked at (the Daytona 500) incident and Kyle Larson hitting the wall at a high rate of speed, we felt we needed to dispatch the safety equipment immediately. That was despite where we were in the race. We needed to do that.
"If that were the case in Daytona where Kyle may have just glanced the wall and drove off, we would have raced back. What you saw (Sunday) was one of those instances where a driver was able to get set and race off in time where we knew we had some time to make the decision. The decision was made to let them come back to the checkered flag."

Eradicating these types of inconsistencies would go a long way to dispel the notion NASCAR attempts to manipulate the outcome. What there needs to be more of is accountability and transparency.
And on this front NASCAR has made tremendous strides. A common practice now, which rarely occurred in years past, is for officials to speak with reporters when something questionable transpires. Already this season, NASCAR officials made themselves present following the Daytona 500 group qualifying fiasco, the following week at Atlanta Motor Speedway when several cars failed technical inspection and again Sunday to explain the caution, no-caution ruling.
Increased cameras and technology on pit road is another initiative NASCAR has enacted to better ensure both accuracy and accountability. No longer are penalties issued because an official thinks they saw a foul occur. Every penalty called is supported by video evidence.
"We don't have any favorites," Sprint Cup Series director Richard Buck said Sunday. "We try to keep every emotion out of it. ... We work very closely in a very dynamic way to identify the situation and look for the solution to it, then that solution is backed up by multiple layers. So we feel very, very confident about our actions."
Sports are contested under the premise everyone involved -- competitors, refs, coaches, etc. -- are on the up-and-up. Without that essential fundamental sports is no different than scripted fare, or as Busch so eloquently radioed his crew following Sunday's fateful caution "WWE," the acronym for World Wrestling Entertainment, which no league with any semblance of credibility wants to be compared to.
Although decisions made in the moment may at times look otherwise, NASCAR is neither scripted nor predetermined. The stakes are too high and the consequences too severe. As for the consistency element, let's call that a work in progress.

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