FORT WORTH, Texas – With a pit strategy move, Denny Hamlin placed his Toyota Camry behind the rear bumper of Ryan Blaney for the million dollar victory. An overtime attempt sprinkled with not just one but two controversial calls by the sanctioning body left Hamlin with a million questions.
“This isn’t a Denny Hamlin judgment call,” Hamlin shared with the media after the NASCAR All Star Race. “I’m just saying, whatever the rule is, let’s be consistent and play by the rule.”
As Blaney was seconds from the start-finish line, NASCAR put out the caution for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. who crashed on the exit of Turn 2. Blaney believed he had won the race, as did his crew chief and spotter who both came over the radio to confirm what they thought to be true. What was a million joyous feelings turned into million mile-an-hour panic mode, then back to focusing on a two lap shootout for a million dollars. Blaney survived the overtime restart after NASCAR permitted him to continue, but the diabolical caution and precarious window net left Hamlin shocked.
“It’s unfortunate because he made a mistake,” continued Hamlin. “He should have won the race. He’s 100 yards from winning the race, but many cars have not won races because of a green-white-checkered or because of a mistake on a restart at the end. Those things happen. All I ask is that we know what the rules are and we play by them. Where NASCAR really got away with one is we nearly crashed off of (Turn) 2. So when I send him head first into traffic and the window net is down, I don’t know.
“Then they’ve got a lawsuit on their hands.”
Never should have been a yellow in the first place. They put Blaney in the situation he was in. To make up for it they let him break a rule. 2 wrongs don’t make a right.
Blaney W, NASCAR L
— Denny Hamlin (@dennyhamlin) May 23, 2022
Hamlin also made it boldly clear that he would have done the same thing if he were in Blaney’s seat.
“100 percent,” agreed Hamlin. “ I don’t know if it’s a moral problem that they had, ‘Well we cost him the win because we threw the caution and we hate to take that away from him.’ I think they had a moral dilemma instead of just playing by the rules like they’re supposed to.
“We’ve been talking about inconsistencies in the tower for ages and it’s no different this week.”
A Brief History of Controversial NASCAR Calls
Forcing NASCAR to make a potentially controversial call has left NASCAR with fans, broadcasters and teams scratching their heads in some cases, and this year’s All Star Race was not the first.
The yellow line rule at superspeedways has been and always will be a debate on consistency since NASCAR introduced the track limits in 2001. One of the biggest tests on the race director was Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s pass for the lead and race win when his car went below the yellow line. NASCAR deemed he was already in the lead and called the pass clean. Fast forward to 2008, Regan Smith dove under Tony Stewart through the tri-oval coming to the checkered flag. What appeared to be contact between the two made it look as if Smith was forced below the yellow line. NASCAR’s rule book stated that there would be no penalty if a driver was forced ‘out of bounds,’ but the sanctioning body penalized Smith and credited Stewart with the victory.
With the All Star Race, exceptions to the rules are more predominant than other events on the schedule. Every year changes with how drivers advance from the Open into the main show, how qualifying orders the grid for the start of the race, how the field may be inverted at certain points in the race, or why some drivers may be eliminated for various reasons. Scott Miller, NASCAR’s Senior Vice President of Competition, acknowledged the varying aspects of the All Star weekend and its unique struggles.
“I’ve been at NASCAR for seven years and we’ve operated under the same rules for races over and over again,” Miller shared with the media after the race. “Every Tuesday, a situation crops up that we need to talk about or that we learn from. Then when we institute all these special rules that we always get asked to do, honestly we’re setting ourselves and the competitors up for problems like what we saw tonight. I wish we could operate All Star races a little bit more under our normal guidelines.”
But if there are big unique opportunities to let rules slide, typically under the label of ‘Except in Rare Instances,’ the All Star Race is a prime example. In 2001, NASCAR waved the green flag to start the All Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway when rain started to fall across the first half of the track. As the field charged into Turn 1, most of the field lost control of their race cars and four drivers suffered heavy crash damage: Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Michael Waltrip and Jeff Burton. During the rain delay, there was much discussion on pit road, in the tower and in the haulers asking why NASCAR threw the green when the track and weather did not deem the race safe to start. Because the race was under different guidelines that had no season-long impact, NASCAR made the irregular decision to allow teams to bring out their backup cars when the race was ready to resume.
Teams hustled to bring out their backup cars in order to compete when the race resumed after drying the track. The biggest story from that night was Gordon’s comeback victory in a backup car – a victory that would have been impossible had NASCAR not provided an exception to the rules in an exhibition event.
Fast forward over 20 years and NASCAR finds themselves in another position to provide an exception. Could NASCAR have allowed Blaney to come down pit road to ensure his window net was secured and allowed him to take his spot back for the final restart? Miller explained that in today’s world of motorsports, that speculation led to an uneasy choice.
“That would have really gone out of character and been out of anything else that we have really done,” Miller added. “There was some speculation of doing that up there, but we saw it and no way we could have known if it was latched properly or not.
“If it was hanging down on the door and if he couldn’t get it to where it was up or we had some doubt that it was latched, then we would have had to do something with it because we wouldn’t have allowed him to start if it was just laying down on the door.”
When the race director and officials around the track saw the window net stay up while Blaney had two hands on the wheel, they deemed his car safe to compete on the final restart. But the result of exclusive rules for Sunday night is what left them in a different position than any other race on the schedule.
“Obviously, Ryan Blaney thought he won the race – another by-product of special rules of the All Star, because every other race that we do besides this one, he would have won the race when the caution flag came out. They were celebrating, and he put the window net down. We saw him struggling to get it back up, but coming back to green, he was warming his tires on the back straightaway. You could clearly see both hands on the wheel warming the tires up. The window net was up. (There was) no way for us to know if he got it 100 percent latched or not, so at that point in time, (there was) no way we could be certain that he didn’t get it latched so there was no way we could call him down pit road at that time.”
What Should NASCAR Do Moving Forward?
One of NASCAR’s consistent takes has been safety. Whether it be the HANS device inside the cars or installing SAFER barriers at the tracks, safety has been the forefront of the stock car series. Currently, fans and teams alike hold mixed reviews of the new tire and wheel combination with NASCAR’s newest generation of stock cars in the Cup series. But the rules state that if a tire comes off the car, the crew chief and two pit crew members responsible for that tire are suspended for the next four points-paying races. With the window net being down or not properly secured, the rules state that the driver’s window net “must be properly tightened and remain tight during an Event.”
Hamlin’s take on the end of the race was one we all can take: consistency. Everyone knows the rules when they strap into their cars to compete. But when a caution is waved prematurely, that should not lead to an exception that risks another driver’s safety. It boils down to the long-standing proverb: two wrongs don’t make a right.
“There are no moral victories,” said Hamlin. “Just because someone should have won doesn’t mean that they should win. Most deserving winner but if you make a mistake, you make a mistake. I don’t want charity, I just want to play by the rules. We’ve had the fastest car four weeks in a row and somebody else got the win because we made a mistake.”
And how would Hamlin have felt if Blaney were to be black flagged, granting him the million dollar check instead?
“Like we got given one.”