NASCAR made the right -- if controversial -- call

2/19/2007 - NASCAR

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- A week dominated by NASCAR rule breakers ended with many fans believing the sanctioning body followed suit.

Did NASCAR break one of its own rules to ensure one of the most dramatic finishes in the history of the Daytona 500?

Kevin Harvick edged Mark Martin in a thrilling side-by-side finish that was one for the record books. But was it the right thing to do?

Plenty of fans say no. They believe NASCAR should have thrown a caution immediately when a multicar crash happened directly behind the two leaders as they headed toward the finish line.

That would have frozen the field, possibly making Martin the winner. But NASCAR allowed Harvick and Martin to continue racing, throwing the yellow flag after they crossed the finish line.

NASCAR officials made a split-second judgment call; probably knowing many people would say they didn't follow the letter of the law.

In my humble opinion, it was the right call.

Many of you disagree. Within five minutes of the checkered flag, my e-mail box was flooded with angry race fans saying NASCAR made a big mistake. Here are a half dozen samples:

"How can NASCAR justify the way it handled the finish? Rules apply, only when convenient? Safety is the A-1 priority for NASCAR, except on the last lap of the Daytona 500."

"NASCAR just lost a very loyal fan. The inconsistency in rules is just too great for NASCAR to be considered a legitimate sport."

"NASCAR did not abide by the rules; therefore, Kevin Harvick unfairly won the race. If NASCAR is not going to abide by their rules, then they don't need to penalize all the crew chiefs who supposedly cheated."

"I'm not a Martin fan, but NASCAR punishes rule breakers, yet makes up the rules as they go."

"NASCAR totally ignored its own rule regarding cautions. A terrible decision, because from this day forward, the drivers will have that split second to wonder 'Is the yellow out, or what?' "

"NASCAR wants to talk about the drivers and the crews cheating. I think NASCAR is cheating by not following its own rules."

Can you see pattern here? These folks feel NASCAR has a double standard, one set of rules for the competitors and another for itself.

NASCAR was in a no-win situation on this one. Let's say NASCAR officials had done what these e-mailers wanted, thrown the caution immediately and declared Martin the winner.

Talk about your mad fans. I can hear it now:

"Why didn't they just let those guys race to the line?"

"The wreck was behind them. It's the biggest race of the year. Let 'em race for it."

"How do they know who was ahead at the caution?"

Controversy was guaranteed either way. Remember, a driver's position isn't determined by where he is the moment the yellow light comes on; it's where his car is when it passed the last electronic scoring loop on the track.

Martin and Harvick seesawed the lead a couple of times from the start of Turn 4 to the time the wreck started.

Imagine determining the winner of the Daytona 500 using that criteria while 200,000 people in the stands and millions at home watched Harvick and Martin gun it to the line.

When the wreck started behind them, Harvick and Martin weren't going to back off, yellow or no yellow. They weren't taking any chances. It was pedal to the floorboard until they hit the finish line.

So Martin could have been declared the winner while everyone watched Harvick reach the stripe first.

NASCAR wanted the fans to see an exciting finish. It was the closest Daytona 500 finish (.020 second) since electronic scoring began.

Fans got their money's worth. But the question is whether safety was sacrificed for the show. Clint Bowyer's car was flipping on the grass and bursting into flames as the leaders went under the checkered flag.

A scary sight, but had NASCAR thrown the caution before the two leaders hit the line, it wouldn't have changed the carnage of the moment.

We're talking about a couple of seconds' difference. Harvick and Martin reached the flag well before the other drivers. The yellow came out as soon as they crossed the line.

To some, that doesn't make sense. The race officially is over. There is no caution.

Wrong. The other drivers still are racing for position after the winner crosses the line. By throwing the caution, it tells the drivers that scoring has stopped, so slow down and quit racing to the flag.

Some fans say NASCAR broke its own rules by racing back to the flag, a rule that changed in 2003.

Technically, that's not true. Drivers don't race back to the line if the caution comes out. In this case, the caution didn't come out until they reached the line.

But NASCAR officials have called this the other way, which leaves them open to criticism. NASCAR threw a caution on the last lap at Talladega in October 2005, handing the victory to Dale Jarrett with Tony Stewart chasing him.

Each situation is different. This was the Daytona 500. NASCAR tried to give most fans what they wanted -- a green-flag finish.

In this case, it kept one of NASCAR's most popular drivers from earning the biggest victory of his career.

What if Martin had reached the line? Would all the critics feel the same way?

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.