Not with a bang, but with a whimper for Nationwide series?
Of course it had to end like this.
A late accident in Saturday's Nationwide race left cleanup crews with a huge task and NASCAR with a difficult decision. Should they red flag the race and give the crews all the time they needed to dry up the track? Or run laps under caution, knowing that a series championship was on the line? Officials ultimately made the wrong choice and unfairly tarnished what should have been Austin Dillon's proudest moment. Given what's behind and what's ahead for the Nationwide series, of course the year had to end in a haze of controversy.
Austin Dillon deserves all the credit in the world for winning the Nationwide series championship. It's not his fault that Sprint Cup regulars took home 26 of the 33 race trophies (28 if you count A.J. Allmendinger's two wins). It's not his fault Homestead ended with the never-ending yellow flag. Dillon was the most consistent Nationwide series driver over the past year and earned his championship trophy. There's no reason for him to be ashamed of proving Pop-pop Childress right in giving him the keys to the #3 kingdom.
Austin Dillon's post-race press conference
But you have to feel for Sam Hornish Jr. His dedication to making the open wheel to NASCAR transition is stronger than anyone since Tony Stewart. Despite knowing he could likely stockpile wins and championships over in IndyCar, Sam has stuck with stock car racing. He struggled through three years in Penske's #77 and accepted a demotion to the Nationwide series. He filled in for A.J. Allmendinger then stepped aside with nary a negative word when Joey Logano came aboard this year. He knows that he won't be back for Penske next season- indeed, still has no idea where he'll be driving next year- and sees his chance to finally validate his dreams disappear under Kyle Busch's spinning tires. Even in defeat, Hornish remained classy, congratulating Dillon and saying his own team needed to be “just a little bit better”.
The decision to let the race continue under yellow for 12 laps was puzzling at the time and remains so now. From the beginning of the yellow flag, track officials said this was going to be a difficult job (per the officials' radio on the scanner). The oil slick covering the track was extensive and would take a significant amount of time to dry. The decision was made to keep the cars running while the cleanup took place. NASCAR stands by that decision; per AP, NASCAR VP Robin Pemberton said, “You can use your hindsight every chance that you want to, but in this particular time, we did the best we could to do, and it was more important to get the track ready.”
Yet the call for a red flag wasn't simply one of hindsight. As noted, those on the scene knew this was going to be a mess to clean up. Those watching the race without a vested interest saw the need for a red flag clearly; just take a look at twitter during that time frame. From reporters to racers, the nearly uniform post was crying out for a stoppage:
Juan Pablo Montoya (Earnhardt Ganassi Racing) - “Where is the red flag??? This is crazy!!!”
Jeff Gluck (USA Today) - “No red flag means the guys with fresh tires won’t have time to get back up to where Dillon is. He’s in control now.”
Denny Hamlin (Joe Gibbs Racing) - “Red flag this baby!”
Jim Utter (Charlotte Observer) - “Why do we not have a red flag?”
Bob Pockrass (The Sporting News) - “I would have liked to have seen a red flag here ... looks like green with 9 or 10 laps to go. #nascar”
Moreover, stopping the race to allow for more green flag laps at the end is hardly unheard of, even at the Nationwide level. NASCAR did so earlier this year for similar circumstances at the July New Hampshire race. After a wreck halted a second attempt at a green-white-checkered finish, NASCAR recognized that continuing under caution would materially impact how the race played out and they stopped the field. Ironically enough, that stoppage hurt Sam Hornish Jr. who had pit during the previous caution to get fuel. His team anticipated NASCAR continuing under caution and they didn't want to run out of gas if the race ran much longer. On Saturday, the exact opposite decision once again left Hornish on the outside looking in. It's worth wondering how either event playing out differently might have enabled Sam to hoist the championship instead of Dillon.
The controversy over Saturday's finish wasn't the only bad news to come out of Homestead for the Nationwide series. After the race concluded, Kyle Busch announced that his team wouldn't be returning at the Nationwide level next season. Parker Kligerman, who was impressive in an outing for underfunded Swan Racing at the Cup level, had run the complete season for KBM. Busch said he didn't want to fold the team but simply couldn't find the sponsorship to keep going. Given the team's lack of wins (even Kyle struggled when running his own car in 2012), it's not hard to see why he didn't want to pound the pavement for dollars in a tough advertising environment.
Get the champion's diecast on Amazon
Along with Turner-Scott cutting back by a team, it's yet another sign of the series struggling as a whole to find its niche. Title sponsor Nationwide will be in a lame duck season next year as they've already announced that they won't extend their current contract at the end of 2014. Dillon, the overall series champion, didn't win a single race. Hornish, its second place finisher, has yet to find someone to drive for next season. Cup series drivers regularly Buschwhack the series regulars both in wins and in top rides, making it even more difficult for the next generation of drivers to make an impact.
With Daytona just three months away, it's unlikely we'll see major changes for next year but 2015 is another story. The series will be split between two television partners once again and NASCAR will have some difficult decisions to make before that happens. Is this series a minor league system whose main purpose is driver development? Or is it a secondary revenue stream for tracks and NASCAR as a whole whose main purpose is to sell tickets and drive television ratings? If it's the former then all involved may have to accept some short-term pain in order to separate the series over the long run. If it's the latter, NASCAR needs to be up-front with fans so that their expectations match reality.
One thing is for sure. They cannot afford to simply go on with business as usual. The driver's championship was far tighter than its Cup counterpart despite lacking a Chase to tighten the points standings. They had the exact drama Sunday's Cup race will likely lack and had a chance showcase the next generation of driving talent. Then it all disappeared in a seemingly endless series of parade laps, cheating drivers and fans alike out of a satisfying conclusion. Instead of talking about the tightest points race among NASCAR's three national series, we're left to discuss NASCAR's decision making.