Commentary

Drivers seeing red over the yellow line

Updated: February 13, 2011, 7:42 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- If Saturday night's race had been the Daytona 500 instead of the Bud Shootout, the last-lap crash was coming.

And the yellow line would have caused it, just as it has in so many restrictor-plate races since the boundary rule was implemented.

So why have it if the rule causes as many accidents as (or more than) it prevents?

This is the "have at it, boys" era, right? Go for it, even at 206 mph in the Shootout.

All that tough talk doesn't apply when it comes to the yellow line at Daytona and Talladega. It's the line you can't cross. A driver can't have at anything if he passes someone below the line. All he gets is a black flag.

The yellow line and "have at it, boys" don't mix. Call it a conflict of interest. Going for it only goes so far in the plate races if you break the yellow boundary.

Denny Hamlin
Todd Warshaw/Getty ImagesDid Denny Hamlin (11) have to go under the yellow line while racing to the checkered flag in the Bud Shootout? Kevin Harvick says no.

Denny Hamlin went below the line at the end of the Shootout to pass Ryan Newman and cross the finish line first. But NASCAR officials said no-no to Hamlin. Kurt Busch, who crossed the line second, was declared the winner.

"You don't want a controversial finish in these deals," said Kyle Busch, Hamlin's teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing. "That's not what our sport is all about. You don't want NASCAR deciding the winner.

"It would be nice if we could at least race to the checkered. But I'm trying to figure out what's wrong with not having a yellow line. As it is now, if a guy blocks you [on the line] all the way to the grass, you can wreck bigger or wreck more."

Hamlin, Busch and Brian Vickers have seen enough. They all want to eliminate the yellow-line rule heading to the checkered flag. Vickers wants NASCAR to swallow the whistle, so to speak.

"If you really want to resolve the issue, just say anything goes after Turn 4," Vickers said. "Then it's irrelevant. I really don't mind NASCAR making judgment calls for the first 499 miles. That's fine.

"But if I were them, I wouldn't want to be in the position to have to make that call in the Daytona 500. If we want to go down to the apron or the grass, so be it. Let 'em go. If you have the balls to go below the line after that, have at it."

The yellow line is the ultimate irony. Having the boundary rule may be more dangerous than eliminating it and letting the drivers have at it.

We've seen terrifying wrecks on the final lap in recent years because drivers were blocking at the yellow line to try to protect a lead, using the line as a boundary.

Carl Edwards ended up on his roof and flying into the catch fence at Talladega in 2009. Brad Keselowski bumped him because Keselowski couldn't go below the yellow line to pass, so he held the steering wheel straight and floored it while Edwards was blocking to stay in front.

That brought up the obvious question: Does the yellow-line boundary cause more accidents than it prevents, especially at the end of a race?

The answer depends on whom you ask. Rusty Wallace remembers what it was like without the yellow line.

"I lived through that whole turmoil," Wallace said. "Everybody got their tails busted by being upside down and crashing."

That still happens with drivers using the line to block.

"Maybe so, but you've gotta have a line," Wallace said. "There are far less problems with the line than we had without it. Guys were wrecking in the middle of the backstretch 30 feet below the line."

For the record, NASCAR has no intention of eliminating the yellow-line rule. Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition, said "a rule is a rule." But the end of the plate races is a continuing problem with the boundary.

Everything's dangerous here. We're running 206 miles per hour. If you're worried about it being dangerous go sit in the stands and watch.

-- Kevin Harvick

Let's review what took place in the Shootout. Without the boundary rule, Hamlin wins the race with no controversy. With it, fans saw tons of controversy over when Hamlin actually passed Newman.

"My understanding was the rule doesn't say you can't go below the yellow line," Vickers said. "I didn't think Denny advanced his position [below the line]. He was ahead of the 39 [Newman] with [Hamlin's] left-side tires above the line. Then Hamlin went below the line to get extra speed. I thought that was legal?"

Hamlin said he went below the line to prevent an accident, knowing he would get black-flagged.

"It wasn't worth wrecking four cars," Hamlin said.

Not in the Shootout. But the Daytona 500? All bets are off.

Hamlin believes he would have slammed into Newman to stay above the line, probably sending Newman's car airborne at 200 mph and wrecking the other two drivers (Kurt Busch and Jamie McMurray) running next to them.

Would the outcome be better and safer without the line?

"For sure going to the checkered," Hamlin said. "How many wrecks were there after the white flag when we didn't have a yellow line?"

Hamlin's point is NASCAR has seen more last-lap wrecks with the yellow-line rule than without it.

Kevin Harvick thinks Hamlin and Kyle Busch need to accept the rule and forget about it.

"I've learned one thing about the Gibbs bunch," Harvick said. "They will complain about anything. There was no reason for Denny to go below the yellow line. He had Ryan passed and didn't need to go below the line.

"There has to be limits on certain things. That's one rule that NASCAR feels very strongly about."

Yes it does, but can you justify a rule that can cause more danger at the end?

"Everything's dangerous here," Harvick said. "We're running 206 miles per hour. If you're worried about it being dangerous go sit in the stands and watch."

Newman was a sitting duck Saturday night as the lead car on the last lap, but he doesn't know if the yellow line made things worse or better.

"I don't like out of bounds for anything," Newman said. "But if they didn't have out of bounds in the NFL you would see guys running into the stands to catch a touchdown pass.

"And you can't just say on the last lap go below the line. That's not the way it works."

It isn't working now, not on the sprint to the checkered flag. When the flag is in sight, the yellow line is a black hole.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter