It’s safe to say that most fans would agree that the sanctioning body of a sport needs to apply the rules consistently. That means calling a penalty every time it’s committed, whether the offender is a popular player, a rookie, or the black sheep of the league.
It’s something NASCAR has gotten vastly better at in recent years, at least most of the time. Some calls are going to be (and should be) balls and strikes. No official is going to get every one right 100% of the time. Sometimes even the most watchful eye can miss something. Some things are plain and simple, judgment calls.
But try as hard as officials might to enforce everything the same, there are situations that are not the same and those have to be looked at individually.
Because as much as rules need to be enforced consistently, they need to be fair.
Sunday’s Bank of America ROVAL 400 had a couple of new rules on the books.
One was a new restart zone, in the frontstretch chicane rather than on the frontstretch itself.
That one didn’t present any issues, there were no questionable restarts, and while the signs marking the zone seemed a little hard to see from some angles, at least for fans, there didn’t seem to be an issue with it. Nobody was called for a restart violation. As long as drivers know where the zone is and it’s the same for the entire weekend, moving it to accommodate different tracks is reasonable.
But another rule change wasn’t so innocuous. Fans were thrilled when NASCAR eliminated stage cautions at road courses. Road races have a completely different strategy for most teams and drivers, and the predictably-timed cautions never meshed well with them. Instead of throwing the yellow flag at the end of the stages, points were awarded to the top 10 but they just kept on racing.
It was simple and effective.
Yet in the name of playoff consistency, the rule was scrapped this weekend to keep all playoff races under the same umbrella. While the thought behind the change made a degree of sense, ultimately, the rule should not have been changed.
Teams worked with the road course rules all year. These were not new to them, and surely a playoff team should be able to adjust to a race using that same rule. Presumably, the playoff teams are the best teams in the sport – they should be able to work with a rule in place for a road course because… it’s a road course and that’s the rule. Fans also knew the road course rule because it’s been run at road courses all year.
Changing the rules midstream in this case served absolutely no purpose (except, perhaps to the folks at NBC selling commercials) and may well have affected the outcome of the race when the leader was trapped on the track by a legitimate caution that bled into the stage caution, forcing him to pit under yellow when most others had pitted under green, a huge disadvantage on a road course. And while that can happen at any time, a rule that forces it to happen sometimes is unfair.
An established rule was also called into question on Sunday (Oct. 8).
The rule of road courses is that if a driver misses a turn, he has to come to a complete stop immediately or face a pass-through penalty. The rule is meant to keep drivers from gaining any advantage by simply skipping a chicane.
That makes sense, right? If drivers could just go anywhere, it defeats the purpose of having a course. Blending back into traffic could also pose an unnecessary safety hazard, which means that letting drivers cruise through and blend back where they were isn’t a great option.
It’s an easy rule to enforce; either a driver misses a corner in a chicane, or he doesn’t. Either he stops or he doesn’t.
But what if missing the chicane wasn’t his fault?
Bubba Wallace made exactly that point on Sunday after getting sent through the backstretch chicane at Charlotte. Did having to stop cost him playoff advancement? Maybe, maybe not. As Wallace himself said after the race, what really cost him a shot was his finish two weeks prior at Texas Motor Speedway. Had he had a stronger run then, would this even be a conversation?
Because it should be.
The rule as written, no matter how consistently enforced, isn’t particularly fair.
There’s an easy fix to the rule: allow a driver who misses a chicane due to the actions of another driver to blend back in without stopping, as long as he assumes the same or lower position. Done. Easy. Fair.
But making it fair would make it hard to enforce consistently.
Situations like Wallace’s would be easy enough. There was identifiable contact from another car, caught on a TV camera, that clearly showed why Wallace missed the chicane. Let him blend back in, no harm, no (or at least less) foul.
The problem is there are a million scenarios. What if an alleged bump isn’t caught on camera? Who determines if the bump was hard enough to cause the driver to miss the corner? How about a situation like the incident between Jimmie Johnson and Martin Truex Jr. at the very same track a few years ago, when both drivers were racing aggressively and both missed the chicane? How does NASCAR assign the blame in that situation? Can blame be assigned in that situation?
So the question becomes whether trying to enforce such a rule is possible to do with any kind of consistency. It’s almost easy to say no – keep the rule as it is and let drivers suffer the consequences of getting caught in an incident at the entrance to a chicane. Wallace got the short end of the stick, sure, but why consider a change?
But now replace Wallace’s name with that of your favorite driver, and it becomes harder, doesn’t it?
If the rule was changed, NASCAR would have to place cameras, possibly at multiple angles with one above the cars, at the entrance to the chicanes on road courses and monitor them the way they do pit road cameras. With current technology, that should be doable.
Then it becomes a ball and strike call. NASCAR has not eliminated those completely; the yellow line rule at the superspeedways relies entirely on judgment calls to enforce. Did a driver advance his position down here? Was he forced? NASCAR has to make those calls on the fly.
And yes, sometimes NASCAR gets them wrong. But is being wrong sometimes worse than being unfair all the time?
Really, no, it’s not.
Enforcing rules consistently is important. That’s why the strike zone is defined and not left up to officials to make up each game. Having the same predefined strike zone, part of which is actually fluid and determined by the individual batter, is fair. And sometimes, despite the rule being both clear and fair to the batter in question, the umpire still gets it wrong.
At the end of the day, the rules need to be enforced – but when enforcing a rule hurts a competitor, like the chicane rule designed for another purpose or even the game as a whole, like stage cautions, it’s time to reconsider the rule.
About the author
Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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