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Saturday, October 16, 2021

Was NASCAR’s No-Call On Chase Elliott Justified?

Sunday’s (Oct. 10) Bank of America ROVAL 400 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL featured another installment of the ongoing feud between Kevin Harvick and Chase Elliott.

Harvick’s move to spin Elliott and the resulting crash damage caused Elliott’s rear tail panel to come loose and was waving to the fans for several laps before it liberated itself and ended up on the track.

Should NASCAR have black flagged the No. 9 car to fix the loose part immediately, or was it justifiable to let things play out? This week, Vito Pugliese and Amy Henderson take on the topic in this week’s installment of 2-Headed Monster.

The Grey Area of Black Flags

When Harvick punted Elliott into the wall at the ROVAL on Sunday, it was generally accepted that it was retaliation for their dustup at Bristol Motor Speedway, which Harvick instigated by running Elliott into the wall, cutting his tire in the process, with the goal of preventing the defending champion from continuing on in the playoffs.

Harvick’s intent was clear, as he attempted to spin him earlier that same lap going into turn 1.

While the resulting damage wasn’t enough to sideline the No. 9 car, the NAPA Camaro was no longer a contender after colliding with Cole Custer, Harvick’s fellow Stewart-Haas Racing teammate entering the banking, creating damage enough to require the rear bumper cover to be secured by tape.

A few laps later, the bumper cover began to flail and flap in the breeze, but NASCAR let him continue, without forcing him to pit road to address, only requesting they fix it on a pit stop. Some feel this was inconsistent on NASCAR’s part, showing favoritism to Elliott as a playoff contender, popular driver and defending champion – among a host of other variables.

Wow. There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s dissect the elements which lead to NASCAR’s explanation of the part not being required at this particular race, as there was no aerodynamic benefit or urgent safety issue.

First, yes, Elliott and Harvick were both competing for a spot to move on in the playoffs, albeit until Harvick blew the entrance to turn 1 and reduced the No. 4 to about a 2.5.

Harvick does have a history of manipulation in the playoffs, from intentionally turning Trevor Bayne in front of the field at Talladega because he was running out of fuel in 2015, to shoving Brad Keselowski into the reach of an angry mob at Texas in 2014, in hopes he’d get stomped like a narc at a biker rally. He was also the benefactor of late-race team communications that brought out a caution in 2011 at Richmond that allowed him to qualify for a previous iteration of the playoffs.

So why should this one individual be allowed to consistently benefit from actions that would – and has – resulted in other drivers being suspended? If there’s any criticism to be levied against NASCAR, it is for not penalizing the No. 4 for rough driving for intentionally wrecking a competitor in a cut off race.

Second, Elliott’s bumper cover was also not necessarily a safety issue. It is a flimsy piece of fiberglass, at a track where speeds are about what you’d typically see at a local asphalt late model race. It’s not something that’s going to end up in the stands or go through a windshield like a chunk of tungsten, so we can suspend the hysterics of lives hanging in the balance. There’s no spectator area where there would be reasonable concern of it reaching if it did blow off at speed either. Even if it did, that would be a pretty rad souvenir to walk out with.

Could it cut a tire? Uh, how about those jumps they installed in the backstretch chicane? It wasn’t exactly Kyle Larson depositing an engine and wheel assembly in the stands at Daytona International Speedway in 2013.

Fox Sports’ Bob Pockrass when reporting NASCAR’s reasoning used the expression, “swallowed the whistle” when referring to the decision to not throw the black flag, only to suggest they fix it should there be a caution. While I typically grimace when other sporting analogies are used with regards to auto racing, in this case, it is absolutely accurate.

How many football games have you seen where the officials botch a penalty call, but will make it up with a call that could have otherwise not been flagged on the next possession? It’s part of the gray area that fans are always bellowing they wish still existed in the sport.

“NASCAR has too many rules!” they cried! Well, here ya go, folks … some murkiness navigated.

Truth be told, not black-flagging someone for something that’s loose is not that uncommon. If you’ve attended a race, you know very well how many cars are running at much faster tracks with body parts and bare bond flopping around, things smoking, stuff dragging, or in the most extreme cases, the No. 10 truck is in the field.

It was not an aerodynamic advantage for it to be loose and it was not any sort of structurally integral part of the car. It was a ball-and-strike call and NASCAR elected to not penalize a driver who was already the victim of a salty competitor with a documented history of altering the outcome of the playoffs.

Had it not been Elliott and say Kurt Busch who wasn’t in the playoffs or black-flagged, would this even be a discussion? – Vito Pugliese

Some Things Should Be Black (and White)

According to NASCAR rules, the black flag “notifies selected drivers that they must drive immediately to pit road and report to their pit stall. Drivers receive the black flag for reasons including a driver/team infraction or potential problem with the car. The black flag does not signal automatic disqualification.”

Throwing that flag isn’t something NASCAR does on a whim. At most tracks, it will cost a team at least one lap, so it’s a last resort, not to be taken lightly.

But let’s face it, in the heat of competition, teams don’t want to pit for repairs to their racecars for the same reason: it’s too costly in terms of track position. But there are some instances where staying on track creates a safety issue, and at that point, NASCAR needs to make the call for them.

Such an instance popped up Sunday at the Charlotte ROVAL. After contact from Harvick, Elliott suffered extensive damage to the back end of the No. 9 Chevrolet. His team made initial repairs, including taping the rear bumper cover, which was partially torn off, onto the deck lid. That repair was faster than the alternative, which was cutting the bumper cover off altogether, and the team was under the gun on the damaged vehicle policy, with just minutes to get back on track and meet minimum speed with no danger to themselves or others.

And they did get back out, at least to start. Elliott didn’t even lose a lap, benefitting from the long caution laps on the road course.

The problem is the tape didn’t hold and the bumper cover came loose, dragging behind the car on the track. It was obvious that it would eventually fly off the car; it was just a matter of time.

And that’s when NASCAR should have ordered the team back to pit road. The bumper cover itself wasn’t the issue since cars aren’t required to have them on road courses. At some oval tracks, the team would be required to replace the bumper cover entirely to continue, but that was not the case Sunday. Cutting it off would have satisfied the rules.

The problem was the semi-attached cover that was dragging on the racing surface. That’s not a competition issue; it goes beyond that and becomes a safety issue. Anytime a car has a loose piece in danger of falling off the car, the team should be forced to make repairs, period.

There’s no way for a team to know if or when a loose part might come off a moving racecar. Elliott’s turned out to be a best-case scenario, but that was never a given. A loose piece of debris, especially a large one, could damage another racecar and end that driver’s chances of a good finish.

It’s bad enough to get caught in somebody else’s wreck, but a known issue that team could fix? That’s another level of unfair. And unfair doesn’t cover it if another driver is injured in a crash caused by that loose piece. Or worse yet, if it was able to get into the stands and injure a fan. Depending on the piece, that’s not out of the question. A piece like a bumper cover could get blown over a catchfence under certain conditions, or into the infield, or, for that matter onto pit road where crewmen aren’t protected by roll cages.

All in all, the potential for someone else to be hurt in some way by a team’s carelessness is fairly high.

And it can, and should, be zero. Loose or flapping debris hanging off a moving racecar, whether on an oval from a short track to a superspeedway or a road course is a safety issue and should be addressed as such — with an automatic black flag if the team refuses to acknowledge it. Yup, that’s going to ruin their day. But their problem sure as heck shouldn’t have the opportunity to ruin someone else’s. — Amy Henderson

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