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Archive for Thursday, April 22, 2004

Judgment calls

Vague guidelines force NASCAR to make tough decisions

April 22, 2004

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Ball or strike? Charge or blocking foul?

Judgment calls have always been a part of sports and NASCAR is no exception.

Throughout NASCAR rule books are clauses containing the phrase "in the judgment of NASCAR officials." And those are just the rules that are written.

There are plenty of issues in NASCAR not clear-cut enough for the rule book.

The rule which prohibits drivers from going below the yellow line on superspeedways to advance their position is one such example. It is spelled out in prerace drivers meetings at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega, Ala., site of Sunday's Aaron's 499.

NASCAR's decision late in 2003 to prohibit racing back to the caution and its rules setting the "commitment line" on pit stops -- the point on the track after which drivers cannot change their mind to pit -- have added more opportunities to play umpire.

"There are always going to be judgment calls in sports. There is no way around it," said Chad Knaus, crew chief for driver Jimmie Johnson. "Somebody has to make the final decision.

"There can be reviews and different things to help in the process, but the problem a lot of competitors have is they want it to be black and white. But there is no black and white -- period."

Before NASCAR stopped racing back to the caution, its biggest and most controversial judgment calls came from enforcing the yellow line at Daytona and Talladega.

It's most famous no-call call came a year ago in the spring race at Talladega, when eventual winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. dipped below the yellow line late in the race while completing a pass and received no penalty.

The judgment in that call came under enormous criticism from competitors and fans.

NASCAR compared that decision to a "ball or strike" call in baseball -- one that can be debated even when different people watch the same play.

This season, NASCAR appears to have taken on a larger role as umpire, perhaps unintentionally.

Before prohibiting racing back to the caution, NASCAR President Mike Helton repeatedly warned drivers to adhere to the "gentlemen's agreement" not to race back, or they would not like it when NASCAR "got involved."

They don't.

End-of-the-race scoring issues have cropped up several times, particularly in NASCAR Busch Series races at Las Vegas; Bristol, Tenn.; and Nashville, Tenn., and the Nextel Cup race at North Carolina Speedway.

Since the running order is "frozen" when the caution is displayed now, NASCAR finds itself having to determine where all 43 cars are at that given moment.

Without a sophisticated Global Positioning System, NASCAR relies on TV replays, official scorers and its eyes to make final determinations.

"We've always had judgment calls in the sport, but it seems like there is a little bit more attention on them now," Johnson said. "It seems like the more time that goes by, the more rules we have.

"Our fate is in NASCAR's hands."

Many drivers, like Elliott Sadler, believe NASCAR has its hands full.

"I think they're doing a good job," he said "it's just that it's one group of minds trying to control 43 different minds. We're making it hard on them."

Sadler said drivers often face conflicting issues in late-race incidents.

"It means a lot to a race car driver coming down to the final few laps what you should or should not do," he said. "You know deep down inside you should not let guys pass you when the caution comes out, but you don't know if NASCAR will catch them or not.

"You also know that if you're still speeding when the caution comes out, (NASCAR officials) have been very vocal in saying they will penalize drivers more positions than they would naturally lose."

Advanced scoring methods might help reduce the times NASCAR must rely on its judgment to make calls, but until then competitors are learning to accept their existence.

"I try to look at the big picture. You have to believe that a call might not go your way and take away a win, a championship or just a position on the track, but in the long run things pretty much even out for everyone," said Robbie Loomis, crew chief for four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon.

"At the time the incident happens, you are looking at just what is in front of you -- what you lost. That's hard to look past, but you have to if you are going to stay in this sport.

"Again, the big picture is to look at why rules like not racing back to the caution were made and that's to improve safety. I will always support that goal."

Knaus said the "big picture" philosophy is the best way to put judgment calls in perspective.

"I definitely used to be a moment-type guy. Whatever was happening right there, I wanted it my way right now," he said.

"If you're trying to win the Nextel Cup championship, you cannot focus on the week-to-week battles. You have to focus on the yearlong battles."

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