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No red means no thrills at end this time

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By DARRELL FRY

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 7, 2002


DAYTONA BEACH -- When the Pepsi 400 was over, Daytona International Speedway officials put on a spectacular fireworks show.

Too bad there weren't any in the last laps of the race.

Frankly, NASCAR's decision to run the final two laps under caution was a huge disappointment.

After all this is Daytona, where restrictor plates are mandatory. And we've grown accustomed to seeing tight, hair-raising action at these restrictor-plate races. Lap for lap, NASCAR doesn't get any better than at plate races.

Saturday night the stage was set for another last-lap dash for the cash, but NASCAR pulled the plug.

As usual at these plate races, a pack of cars was breathing down Michael Waltrip's neck with less than 10 laps to go.

But with three laps left, three cars spun out in Turn 2, bringing out a caution flag and essentially sealing the victory for Waltrip, who unapologetically accepted it with a smile.

That was where NASCAR officials dropped the ball. They could immediately have signaled for a red flag, halting the race with probably two laps to go. The track could have been cleared and the final laps could have been run at full speed, which is what everyone came to see, right?

But NASCAR opted to let the race end under caution, figuring a restart would have taken place with only two laps left, barely enough time for drivers to get back to full speed.

"Any time you're under five laps to go, it's a touch-and-go situation," NASCAR vice president of corporate communications Jim Hunter said. "We feel our officials made the right decision."

It's a valid point.

But wouldn't a flawed ending have been better than what we got? Wouldn't a last-lap dash at 120 mph been better than some guy coasting 60 mph to the checkered?

"I don't really know when they call for the red flag and when they don't," Waltrip said.

Remember this year's Daytona 500? NASCAR red-flagged the race after a late caution, setting up a dramatic ending that left everyone satisfied. Granted, there were more laps left when NASCAR opted for the red flag, but somehow NASCAR must find a way to make it work when there are fewer laps like Saturday night.

Hasn't NASCAR heard of overtime?

Fact is, the yellow-flag ending spoiled what was an otherwise entertaining race, which is why folks were angrily littering part of the track with debris at the end. It was your typical restrictor-plate race with never fewer than 10 cars running bumper-to-bumper and a major wreck on Lap 136 when Dale Jarrett and Joe Nemechek touched off a 14-car melee going into Turn1.

The only thing missing was a halfway exciting finish.

In NASCAR's defense, it was probably the safe thing to do. A two- or three-lap run to the finish would probably have led to another crash, possibly a big one. When you bunch 21 cars for a frantic sprint to the checkered, there's going to be a lot of mangled sheet metal left in the wake.

"That probably saved another three or four cars," third-place finisher Sterling Marlin said. "It's hard to take the race away from somebody. It was a good decision."

He, of course, was speaking from a driver's perspective. Not ours. We wanted to see a good old-fashioned shootout. We wanted to see the race decided on the track, not in the officials' booth.

Who knows? Maybe the race would have finished just like it did with Waltrip in Victory Lane. After all, he dominated the latter stages.

Then again, maybe Marlin and his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Jimmy Spencer would have hooked up and drafted past Rusty Wallace and Waltrip and posted a 1-2 finish for Dodge.

The point is, we'll never know because NASCAR wouldn't let us find out.

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