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Not with a bang, but with a whimper for Nationwide series?

Updated on November 16, 2013
Austin Dillon celebrates his championship, appropriately with yellow smoke
Austin Dillon celebrates his championship, appropriately with yellow smoke | Source
Hoisting a well-deserved series championship
Hoisting a well-deserved series championship | Source

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

Sam Hornish Jr. faces an uncertain future as 2013 ends
Sam Hornish Jr. faces an uncertain future as 2013 ends | Source

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

Hornish and Dillon dueled to the very end and deserved more than just five laps to finish their championship chase
Hornish and Dillon dueled to the very end and deserved more than just five laps to finish their championship chase | Source

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.

Kyle Busch Motorsports won't be coming back to the Nationwide series next year; his efforts in the #54 at JGR will
Kyle Busch Motorsports won't be coming back to the Nationwide series next year; his efforts in the #54 at JGR will | Source

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.


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Should NASCAR have thrown the red flag with 10 to go (or earlier)?

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      Doug 4 years ago

      Great written article and writing style. I didn't see the race on TV. I've been to the Homestead finale three times (2005, 2006, 2009). I have family in Florida and would attend the race during the week of Thanksgiving vacation, but I'm concerned NASCAR won't have the finale at Homestead. It's nice/good to be able to have longer term plans when vacationing and trying to see the races. I go to the July Daytona race during 4th of July vacation, and I've attended a few Daytona 500's when I had vacation at that time of year. I think NASCAR changing the location and dates of races really hurts the fan's ability to attend the races.

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      Tucker go smoke 4 years ago

      Nobody should be surprised this is 3CAR anything to get it a CHAMPIONSHIP although he didn't win a RACE the boy did what he had to do to WIN IT (CHAMPIONSHIP) in 1984 TERRY LAbonte only won 1race so we know its possible and Austin Dillon WON THIS ONE l really hate it for SAM he deserves to be here in NASCAR @ the CUP LEVEL RIGHTNOW HOPING&PRAYING a good team picks him UP he's truely the best to move over since SMOKE although not quite the caliber racer as SMOKE he still PROVEN he's a CHAMPIONSHIP wouthyNASCAR RACER GO SAM show your TALENT because you definitely have it lm a FAN of yours even if you did drive aFORD this year really love to see you back in aDODGE or CHEVY somebody PLEASE GIVE THIS MAN A SHOT HE WILL NOT LET YOU DOWN IM 55 and been a RACE FAN for most all of it and this MAN KNOWS HOW 2 DRIVE GO SAM and SMOKE MY FAMILY MISSES YOU getwell soon& GODSPEED TUCKER

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      fuzzy 4 years ago

      Only in Nascrap a champion with no wins !!! Imagine that

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      amazed 4 years ago

      Nascrap has learned nothing from Richmond, they changed the sport forever by making the stupid decision based on a assumption of how that race would have finished. A fantasy finish they based their decisions on. They screwed up again, should have stopped it, denied many laps of racing in a Championship race, wrong, wrong, wrong. Not fair to any drivers, unless you are a Dillon. Nascar need a changing of the guard, their judgement is severly impaired, or maybe not, its by design. And they defend to the end, when its really clear what they are doing. It should be interesting to see what mess they make of the final Cup race of the year. Good Grief. And no I do not see the Dillon baby worthy..he did not win a race this year. Champ??? Really???? Methinks they are just trying to get the Dale Sr. fans happy to see 3 for Cup next year. All calculated. They denied Sam of not knowing what could have been.