Late in Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race on the Charlotte Roval, the rear bumper cover of Chase Elliott’s #9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet dislodged and began dangling from behind his car.
Elliott had wrecked on lap 55 of 109 after being hit by Kevin Harvick, which left the reigning Cup champion with severe rear-end damage.
In virtually every case such situations have happened in the past when noticed by NASCAR, a race control official asks that the team be made aware of the issue, and most times, if the team doesn’t bring the car to pit road to address it, NASCAR will have the car black-flagged to ensure it does.
On Sunday, there was never a word on NASCAR race control radio about the #9 car’s bumper cover – not even a mention of it, let alone discussion of a possible black flag.
The lack of the discussion, or the display of a black flag, was widely noted – including by drivers on other teams over their radios.
On lap 87 – surprise, surprise – NASCAR was forced to throw a caution for debris on the track, as the bumper cover finally came off and landed on the racing surface.
The caution turned out to be a great benefit for Elliott. He had remained on the lead lap after his wreck, but far back in the field and more than 50 seconds behind the leader.
Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet Camaro NAPA Auto Parts
Photo by: Nigel Kinrade / NKP / Motorsport Images
Not only did the caution allow the field to close up for the caution, but it gave Elliott a strong opportunity to gain numerous positions on what were often chaotic restarts.
As it turned out, Elliott rallied to finish 12th – a remarkable recovery considering the damage to his car and he advanced to the semi-final round of the series playoffs.
Scott Miller, NASCAR’s executive vice president of competition, was asked about NASCAR’s take on the incident Monday morning during an appearance on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s show, The Morning Drive.
His response made clear that NASCAR was aware of the issue from the beginning.
“You’ve probably seen bumper covers flapping a lot at Martinsville and us letting it go, so again those are situational things,” he said. “The bumper cover at high speed race tracks is actually part of the safety of the car – for when the car turns around backwards, having the bumper cover on there lowers the lift-up speed quite considerably. That wasn’t a requirement for the Roval, so we let it play out.
“Another thing that factored into it was he wasn’t in a pack of cars, where if it fell off someone would immediately run over it. Again, like everything we do in the tower, there is a lot of things to process and a lot of decisions to be made and that was the one we made yesterday because of all those factors.”
The problem with NASCAR’s explanation is glaring – it omits any reference to the sanctioning body’s repeated stated desire of race control not to interfere with the natural course of the race.
Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota Camry FedEx Office, Matt DiBenedetto, Wood Brothers Racing, Ford Mustang Menards/Duracell
Photo by: Matthew T. Thacker / NKP / Motorsport Images
Whether or not the bumper cover hit another car is irrelevant, because once it came off on the Roval course, there was a near-100 percent chance it would still land on the track, which would force NASCAR to throw a caution. And that is exactly what happened.
Throwing a caution for something that could have been easily corrected and prevented without one completely interferes with the natural course of the race.
Elliott was not going to win the race either way, but he certainly benefitted from the caution and improved his position in the race – and the playoffs – with the help the caution provided. That is a quintessential example of affecting the outcome of the race.
Perhaps, though, it should not come as a surprise.
Just three weeks ago during the playoff race at Bristol Motor Speedway, Harvick appeared on his way to a victory in the final laps when he came up on Elliott, who was a lapped car, while trying to fend off a fast-approaching Kyle Larson.
Elliott and Harvick had an incident about 30 laps prior while racing for the lead, which left Elliott with a flat tyre and forced him to pit under green.
Again, in nearly every other situation where a lapped car (not a car trying to stay on the lead lap) ends up ahead of a battle for the lead in a race, an official in race control asks that the team – particularly the spotter – of the lapped car be made aware of the leaders approaching.
Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet Camaro Hooters, Kevin Harvick, Stewart-Haas Racing, Ford Mustang Subway Delivery
Photo by: Nigel Kinrade / NKP / Motorsport Images
Elliott never got out of the way of the approaching Harvick/Larson battle, instead remaining in front of Harvick as Larson got around him for the lead with four laps to go. Larson went on to win the race.
Not once as the situation unfolded was the #9 car mentioned on race control radio, let alone was the team asked to be informed of what was coming up behind him.
So far, these incidences have been attributed to “situational things.”
Yes, every situation is different. But before punishing any driver or team in the future for actions that affect the outcome of a race, NASCAR should first listen to its own silence on the issue.