The long history of sports around the world is filled with many instances of referees or game officials making controversial decisions that have directly influenced the outcome of a game. These controversial moments include the infamous Tuck Rule Game between the New England Patriots and Oakland Raiders in 2001, as well as the 1972 Olympic Men’s Basketball Final in which the Soviet Union defeated the United States 51-50 after the shot clock was reset twice in the USSR’s favor in the final moments of the game.
Auto-racing is no exception to this phenomenon, as numerous examples of controversial calls exist across NASCAR, IndyCar and Formula One, with one of the more notable examples being the 2002 Indianapolis 500, in which Helio Castroneves was declared the winner despite a replay showing Paul Tracy in front of him at the exact moment the caution flag was displayed.. Roxboro, North Carolina native Justin Johnson found himself in a similar scenario to Tracy in the 2017 Thanksgiving All-Star Classic when a scoring discrepancy placed him behind Matt McCall on the final restart of the race, which forced Johnson to settle for a second-place finish.
A post-race inspection revealed that the transponder inside McCall’s #51 Late Model was improperly placed, which led to the error in timing and scoring, but Southern National Motorsports Park promoter Michael Diaz elected to keep McCall as the winner of the Thanksgiving Classic. Johnson, who had led 58 laps in the race, voiced his displeasure towards the track officials, as he believed he should have been the one celebrating the victory.
“I was certainly displeased with the officials because it’s clearly stated in the NASCAR rules where the transponder should be placed,” Johnson said. “There are also a handful of rules on Southern National’s entry blank, and one of those rules also states where the transponder should be. McCall’s transponder was on the right-front of the car instead of the right-rear of the car, and we felt like we kind of got cheated out of that deal.”
The controversy began with 25 laps remaining in the race as both McCall and Johnson found themselves in the middle of an intense back-and-forth battle for the lead. Johnson gradually began to gain a slight advantage over McCall when the caution flag came out for a multi-car crash involving Brenden Queen, Devin Dodson and others at the exit of Turn 4, which forced track officials to display the red flag in order to clean up the debris.
During the delay, track officials gathered together to sort out the running order for the final handful of laps, as the leaderboard showed McCall in front of the field even though Johnson appeared to edge him at the finish line on the previous lap. After several minutes of deliberation, McCall was scored as the official leader of the race, and although Johnson was scored in second, he elected to line up third behind McCall on the inside line hoping that the bottom line would give him a better chance to re-take the lead.
Johnson proved to be no match for McCall on the ensuing restart, as the latter would pull away from the rest of the field as he scored his first Late Model victory since the 2015 season, much to the disappointment of Johnson and his car owner Tommy Lemons Jr. Both Johnson and Lemons protested the finish, but Diaz and the rest of the SNMP track officials stated that the inaccurately placed transponder did not enhance the performance of McCall’s Late Model, and therefore was not a legitimate reason for race control to strip McCall of his victory.
Johnson admitted that it took him nearly two weeks for him to accept Diaz’ final ruling on the finish of the Thanksgiving Classic, but added that he remains on good terms with him. Johnson added that he has a tremendous amount of respect for Diaz and his ability to successfully manage Southern National, and is looking forward to putting the 2017 Thanksgiving Classic behind him when he returns to the track this weekend.
“Mike and I have had a number of conversations since that race, and although I don’t agree with his decision, I understand that he is a racer,” Johnson said. “He has the best interests not only for his racetrack but for local racing in general. I once told him I would never come back, and he asked me to give him another chance and to explain his side of things, and we’re both ready to put this whole thing behind us and move forward. We’re two people who respect local racing and want the best for it.”
Several things have changed for Johnson since the last time he raced at SNMP, with the most notable being his departure from Tommy Lemons Jr. and Jumpstart Motorsports at the end of the 2017 season over to Robert Tyler Racing. Although Johnson’s first season with Tyler started poorly with two crashes at Myrtle Beach and Tri-County, he rebounded to score a 3rd place finish in his return to Myrtle Beach and is hoping that the momentum established will help him obtain his first victory at Southern National.
“The last three times I’ve been to Southern National, I’ve been close to winning,” Johnson said. “I’ve led laps the last two times I’ve been there, but outside of the issue with McCall, I lost the lead on a late restart in the race before that one. In the previous Thanksgiving Classic, I was racing with Lee Pulliam for the lead, and with about three laps to go I ran him down and I thought I had it won until a lap car got in my way and turned me around. I don’t have any other expectations other than to just go there and win, and we’re going to go out and win the practice sessions, the qualifying session, and both races. I don’t think I would get up and go to the racetrack if I didn’t think I had a chance to win.”
Johnson will not be a regular competitor at SNMP this season, as he plans to focus on competing for a championship in the CARS Response Energy Late Model Stock Car Tour in his #44 Puryear Tank Lines/Thrifty Tire Late Model. Despite his busy schedule, Johnson will attempt to visit Southern National as often as he can during the 2018 season and is looking forward to having another chance at the Thanksgiving Classic in November.