|Joey Logano takes the checkered flag after a crash brought out the yellow flag to end the race|
|Chris Graythen/NASCAR via Getty Images|
The finish to Sunday's CampingWorld.com 500 at Talladega Superspeedway left more than a few people scratching their heads and left nearly a dozen smoking wrecks littered across the start/finish line in yet another controversial ending that left NASCAR officials with a lot of explaining to do.
When the smoke finally cleared following a green-white-checkered finish to the 500-mile Sprint Cup event, Joey Logano was doing victory burnouts along the frontstretch while the Talladega faithful – many of them Dale Earnhardt, Jr. fans – showed their displeasure by launching beer cans at Logano's no. 22 Ford.
"I was aiming for them. I was thirsty," said Logano. "It's kind of a cool explosion when you hit beer cans and stuff. It explodes all over the place. It's kind of a shame they were throwing their beers full. I feel bad. They probably should have drank them."
The fans frustration was understandable, as was the frustration written in the faces of the four drivers who were eliminated from the Chase in the final race of the three-race "Contender Round" that culminated at Talladega, including Earnhardt, Jr., Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman.
All four were victims – in one way or another – of NASCAR's questionable decision-making in the final three-lap dash to the finish, which likely should have ended before it started.
The entire outcome of the race changed with five laps to go when the engine of Jamie McMurray's car expired to bring out the caution, setting up the three-lap shootout that would decide the race.
After several previous restrictor-plate races where repeated attempts at a green-white-checkered finish caused more wrecks than the races themselves, NASCAR announced a rule change for Talladega – there would be only ONE attempt at a G-W-C finish, no more. If a crash brought out the yellow on the only attempt – the race was over.
It sounded like a cut-and-dried ruling. Drivers were reminded during the pre-race drivers meeting, and every crew chief and spotter reminded their drivers as they lined up for the restart with three laps to go.
As the field came to the restart, NASCAR called for the green flag, but before the field would cross the start/finish line, Jimmie Johnson spun off the bumper of Martin Truex, Jr. and down through the infield grass.
The yellow was immediately displayed, and that should have been it, with Logano flagged as the winner.
But hold on – NASCAR officials ruled that since the field hadn't taken the green flag, it did not count as an attempt, and they would line up for another try.
It certainly seemed like NASCAR was changing the rules as they went, but whatever the reason, the field lined up for another go.
And then things really got crazy.
Defending series champion Kevin Harvick had been nursing a sour engine for most of the final laps and was barely able to hang onto his 10th-place position. Not able to get up to speed on the restart, Harvick was likely to get shuffled to the back and lose any hope of advancing in to the next round of the Chase.
On the first aborted attempt, Harvick had pulled up to the high side to let the field on by, and lined up for the second try in the same spot.
When the green flag flew, Harvick again looked to the high side, but ended up hooking the back end of Trevor Bayne's car, sending him sliding in front of the field and touching off an 11-car pileup that ended up collecting Chase contenders Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin.
NASCAR official threw the yellow, and this time – the race was over. Logano was scored the winner with Earnhardt running second, and out of the Chase.
Harvick, meanwhile, hung on to finish 15th, and barely edged Newman to advance to the next round with what several drivers claimed was a deliberate attempt to cause a crash to save his season.
"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," said Bayne. "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."
Several teams made their way to the NASCAR hauler after the race to get an explanation from NASCAR, among them team owner Joe Gibbs, who saw two of his drivers eliminated from the Chase, including Kenseth, who had entered the 10-race Chase as the top seed.
"He (Harvick) knew if he put him in a slow spin the race was over and he'd make it," said Kenseth. "I don't think that's what racing is about. Wasn't really racing to be honest with you – it was just a bunch of games going on and you can hardly blame a guy for doing it. He was either going to make it if he does that and wreck some people going slow or he's not going to make it if it goes green for two laps."
Hamlin was among several drivers who voiced their displeasure on Twitter after the race.
"What a joke we have a car with no motor wreck the field to end the race," Hamlin tweeted. "Complete crap. Sorry to anyone who spent $ coming to this circus."
Following the race, NASCAR vice chairman Mike Helton addressed the media, and said NASCAR officials saw no wrongdoing on the part of Harvick.
"What we saw, there is no evidence right now that there was anything the 4 car (Harvick) did that was questionable, other than moving out of line," said Helton. "Obviously there are some of the teams questioning what the 4 car did on the restart. We went back and walked through with them. Procedurally from NASCAR, we don't see anything there that's of suspect – so far. We haven't seen anything.
Helton, however, said things could change once NASCAR had a chance to examine the final results.
"The only thing I mean by so far is that I've been around racing long enough to know that something could crawl out of the woodworks in the next 24 hours."
Harvick, himself, denied it was an intentional act, and said he was just trying to get out of the way.
"It wasn't running really well on the restarts. Then at the end I was trying to get out of the way. I don't know if I clipped the 6 or if he came across as I was coming up. It was one of those days where everything went well until the very end until the bottom fell out on those lap couple of restarts when it cooled off. It was a broken exhaust pipe or something."
Intentional or not, it was little comfort to the drivers now on the outside looking in, all victims of another made-for-TV ending in a made-for-TV championship format.
"I don't think that's what racing is about. The spot they put us in, it's hard to blame people, but that's not what racing's all about," said Kenseth. "I got wrecked out two weeks in a row from people doing what they had to do to make the Chase, but call it what you want. But I just feel like they lost total control of this whole thing. It's not what racing is all about."