LOUDON, NH — You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t if you’re NASCAR. They had a bad hand of cards dealt to them for Sunday’s Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway and unfortunately it’s magnified even larger because it involved the first flag of the day and the last.
The opening debate was on if whether Sunday’s Cup Series race should have even started to begin with. See, rain fell in the Northeast from Saturday night through much of the morning on Sunday. Light mist hung around into the afternoon but even with those conditions, NASCAR felt like they had the track dried the best that they could in order to get the 22nd race of the 2021 season underway for an on time start.
Yes, weepers were a troublesome problem on the apron between Turns 1 and 2, but even with mist hanging around, they felt like they could drop the green flag still at 3:18 p.m. ET. That decision was quickly scrutinized and debated by all.
The track was just too wet some felt. The mist grew even heavier which caused leader Kyle Busch and second place driver Martin Truex Jr. to crash in Turn 1 just five laps into the race. Even fifth place driver at the time Denny Hamlin spun too which saw three JGR cars, all running inside of the top five, have problems on Lap 5 in Turn 1.
Busch’s day was done. As the leader, you’re going to hit the slippery parts of the track first. Truex being in second had similar fortunes. Everyone else behind could adapt which is exactly what happened. NASCAR elected to throw the yellow, then a few laps later the red flag.
We’d go 1-hour, 41-minutes and 22-seconds under red before we’d get back to action shortly after 5 p.m. ET. Which bodes the question, should the race have even started to begin with?
Most of the drivers didn’t think so.
“We started the race under a mist. It should have never gone green to begin with,” a disappointed Busch said. “But, then it kept getting worse and worse lap over lap. The lap before I went into 1, it shoved the nose really bad and I was able to keep it under control. It wasn’t bad enough. The next time I went down there, hell, I lifted at the flag stand, maybe a little past the flag stand and just backed it in. We’ve been talking about it for two laps that it was raining. There’s no sense in saying what I want to say. It doesn’t do you any good.”
“It was wet the lap before,” he said. “I was screaming it was wet. The next time around, I lost it and it was done. There’s not much you can do on slicks in the rain.”
Hamlin said that he lucked out that he was just far enough behind to be in the wreck, he said it’s still not a good look to have started in these conditions.
“It was fortunate and unfortunate,” he said. It’s wet. We run slick tires and these cars don’t have any grip on slick tires and wet asphalt. To me, that’s the job of the corner spotter has in NASCAR. They’re sitting over there. They can feel when it’s raining and see when it’s raining. That’s their job to tell NASCAR that it’s raining and we have to stop so we don’t have that situation. You always in these situations, you want them to error on the side of not looking bad and this is just a bad look.”
This was reminiscent of the 2001 All-Star race in Charlotte. They allowed drivers to just go to backup cars once the track was ready again. They couldn’t do the same here due to a couple of factors.
First off, that was an All-Star race, not a points paying race. Secondly, with this being a one-day show, backup cars aren’t even here to be used. So, Busch got an early head start back to North Carolina as his day ended earlier than it needed to.
“We were consistent with how we’ve always handled that,” NASCAR Senior Vice President of Competition Scott Miller said. “We rely on driver communication and spotters in the corners.
“It obviously didn’t work out today. We got caught out by a quick popup in Turn 1. The corner got wet really quick. We can always look at being more conservative, but we did follow the same protocols we always do.”
Then there’s the ending.
We all knew heading into the final stage that NASCAR could shorten the race at any time. The day was cloudy from the get go. When it wasn’t raining, it was darker due to the thickness of the clouds. So, with an 8:23 p.m. ET sunset, how late could the race realistically go.
With over 100 laps left in the race and darkness on the horizon, could they make it the full duration. After every car had pit for the final time, NASCAR waited a few more laps but decided enough was enough and gave drivers the 10 lap warning that they’d end eight laps shy of the initial distance.
“We just felt like it was getting too dark and needed to call it,” Miller said. “It’s just as simple as that, completely based on raceability.”
Second place finisher Christopher Bell didn’t necessarily agree by that call.
“I finished second and I was closing in on the leader, so yes, they called it too soon,” Bell said after finishing runner-up “But I’m sure Aric (Almirola) was saying it was dark for the last 50 laps, and that’s the thing. And then we call it with eight laps to go, what’s eight more laps?
“If the yellow flag comes out, OK, call the race. But eight laps? That’s, what, four minutes? What’s four minutes going to do in the grand scheme of things? I ran second, so I’m sure (Almirola) was saying it was dark the whole time.”
Almirola, ended up winning and halted a 98 race winless streak in the process to stamp his name into the 2021 postseason as a result. Even he said that the visibility wasn’t to bad in the end.
“It honestly wasn’t that bad,” he said. “There was enough light to keep racing. It was definitely dusk, but it wasn’t dark.”
Third place finisher Brad Keselowski agreed with the call to end it early though. He felt like Almirola had the best car so the best car ended up winning whether it was completed on Lap 293 or Lap 301.
“It was pretty smart (to call the race early). You’ve got to keep in mind that what you can see on TV is not what you can see in the car,” said the Team Penske driver. “We see a lot less in the car than you can even on site, so whether it’s Circuit of the Americas where we had no visibility or here bad things happen when you can’t see.”
The fourth place finisher wasn’t happy with a NASCAR call but it had nothing to do about a red flag or ending the race early.
Joey Logano has to be wondering if this was a day of what might have been. Logano, got some rubber in his throttle line following that opening lap crash. When the field came down pit road for the red flag due to rain, a crew member opening a part of his hood to get a photo of what was going on. That’s a no-no. NASCAR saw that and penalized him on pit road once we got back going.
While they elected to fix his No. 22 Ford, it cost them two laps too. He still fought back to finish fourth for just his fourth top five finish in the last 13 races run on the season and only his second in the last eight in general.
He got one of his laps back on the Lap 31 caution then the other on Lap 138. He’d then charge up to his second straight fourth place run in Loudon.
“When you come to your home track all you want to do is win,” Logano said. “A straight kick to the gut to start the race with a piece of rubber getting in the linkage, the throttle linkage, and not letting me get wide-open. All we did was take a picture under the red flag, underneath the hood to see what was under there. We took a picture with a camera phone and they gave us a two-lap penalty for that. I understand the rules are the rules, but it’s also a safety factor and the last thing you want is a throttle to stick and get hurt. I don’t know. Hindsight is 20/20, but you would never know what it was if you didn’t take a picture, but it still had the piece of rubber in it. It’s frustrating. We got a good finish out of it, but it’s frustrating when you’re at your home track and you feel like you could have got a win out of it, out of a safety issue that we got a penalty for.”
Nevertheless, NASCAR had to make some difficult calls on Sunday. There wasn’t a true definitive answer for any but they did what they could and allowed us to be treated to a thrilling race from restart to the end.