COPPER HILL, VA :: NASCAR set a precedent at Daytona in February. Kyle Larson dumped CE Falk to win at Daytona and there’s no other way of putting it. When NASCAR allowed Larson to keep the win, a lot of people felt that win stood solely because Larson is a phenom racing in NASCAR’s top ranks. I admit I didn’t buy in to that logic – until Friday night when Ben Rhodes was penalized for something that wasn’t anywhere near as egregious.
When NASCAR allowed Larson to keep the win, they set a precedent that it was acceptable to wreck a guy on the last lap. That precedent held through the Battle at the Beach where every single race came down to a last lap bump-and-run. The feelings were very clear in the racing community. If Larson’s move shouldn’t merit a penalty, wrecking a guy for the win should be fair game.
Now, fast forward a month. On Friday night, at the Myrtle Beach 400, Justin Milliken, Ben Rhodes and Anthony Anders were staging a classic duel for the win and it became apparent the race would be decided on the last lap. And it was. Rhodes dived to Milliken’s inside on the front straightaway. Milliken took a defensive line. The end result was Rhodes turning Milliken sending him in to the outside wall. Rhodes crossed the line first but was stripped of his win and placed as the last car on the lead lap in the final rundown. Anders, who was running in third, was awarded the victory.
Why? How’s this more egregious than Larson dumping Falk at Daytona? It’s just not. I like Larson, but there’s no denying that he had every intention of wrecking Falk. The Rhodes/Milliken deal was a racing incident. Regardless, both deals should’ve been called the same way. They either should have stripped Larson of the win or they should have allowed Rhodes to keep his win. Really, the only thing that was consistent in both calls is that Rhodes got the short end of the stick. The fact that Rhodes, in both cases, was the biggest loser has to be heartbreaking for the young driver.
The inconsistencies compromise the integrity of the sport – especially when one driver is consistently shafted both times or if another has the appearance of the series showing favoritism towards a certain driver. In the case of Daytona, it really is beginning to appear as though the call went the way it did because of the driver involved. That driver was Larson, the young phenom, defending NASCAR K&N Pro Series East Champion now running Nationwide and hyped by the media as the next Jeff Gordon.
Let’s be honest, the refusal to penalize Larson generated buzz. The California-native instantly became a polarizing driver overnight. You either like him or you hate him. And there were plenty of people who only tuned in to the Tuesday night races at Daytona because of Larson – either because they wanted him to win or they wanted karma to bite.
Now, NASCAR may have watched the incident and felt Rhodes did intentionally wreck Milliken. If so, who cares? Larson intentionally wrecked Falk and NASCAR was cool with it.
This is the same style of inconsistency that has turned fans off to big league NASCAR racing for years. We’ve all seen the “yellow line” rule NASCAR has at Daytona and Talladega – a rule itself that’s been horribly inconsistently enforced.
Perhaps the most egregious example of that comes in 2003 when Dale Earnhardt, Jr. made a pass on eventual champion Matt Kenseth for the lead in the closing laps of the spring race at the Talladega Superspeedway. Earnhardt, Jr. drove below the yellow line to make the pass and did not yield the position back and NASCAR allowed it to stand. Fast forward to Talladega in 2007 when Regan Smith did the very same thing with a pass on Tony Stewart and found himself penalized. In both instances, the call went to the more popular driver. Once again, it was a deal where NASCAR was either wrong in 2003 or they were wrong in 2007.
One thing NASCAR does not do is admit when they’ve made a mistake. That complicates things even more. It leaves drivers and fans wondering what the precedent is. Is it acceptable to pass below the yellow line if you’re block or is it not? Is it acceptable to turn the leader on the last lap or is it not? Is it only acceptable to wreck the leader if you intend to wreck him, not if it’s a racing deal?
Personally, I think, once the white flag waves, anything should go. I don’t agree with the UARA-STARS about an automatic penalty if you spin the leader on the last lap. However, the rule is clear. It’s in black and white. All the drivers know it. The precedent is set. The drivers can’t question the integrity of the series if they’re penalized for wrecking a guy on the final lap of a UARA race.
With NASCAR, that’s just not the case. In every level from NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing to NASCAR Whelen All American Series Late Model Stock Car racing, there have been several different precedents and different explanations each time. The only thing NASCAR does do consistently is penalize drivers for speaking their minds (see: Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski).
So, what’s a driver to do? When the white flag waves at Martinsville this year, will the second place driver not even make an attempt to win the race because they might get penalized? After all, we don’t know what crosses the line at this point and second place does pay more than 18th. It’s time for NASCAR to man up and admit their mistake, whether the mistake was Daytona or Myrtle Beach. If there wasn’t a mistake and the deal at Daytona went down exactly as many writers and fans felt it did, that they wanted Larson to win and wouldn’t have stripped him of it, NASCAR owes it to the entire racing community to be honest about it.
Until then, NASCAR owes Ben Rhodes either $10,000 for winning at Myrtle Beach or $15,000 for winning at Daytona.