Commentary

The right calls in Indy, Charlotte

Updated: May 31, 2011, 12:36 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

Throw the caution flag or don't throw the caution flag, that is the question.

Both big races Sunday had a little caution-light controversy in the final moments. Some fans felt the light came on a little late in the Indy 500, and others questioned why it never came on in the Coca-Cola 600.

But both series -- IndyCar and NASCAR -- did the right thing to try to let the competitors decide the outcome.

When rookie J.R. Hildebrand hit the wall out of Turn 4 while leading on the final lap at Indy, several seconds elapsed before the caution was displayed.

[+] EnlargeJR Hildebrand
Todd Warshaw/Getty ImagesJ.R. Hildebrand's car, left, was out of the racing line as events unfolded at the end of the Indianapolis 500.

It was enough time for Dan Wheldon to zoom by Hildebrand's mangled car just before the yellow caution light appeared. Wheldon crossed the finish line ahead of Hildebrand's skidding car, not that it mattered.

I received emails from some fans who thought the yellow should have come out sooner, which would have made Hildebrand the winner.

Maybe IndyCar officials waited a little longer than they would have earlier in the race. And that's a good thing. The drivers determined who won, not a yellow light.

Most fans don't want to see a race end under a caution. Technically speaking, the Indy 500 did end under the yellow, but officials waited long enough for the man who crossed the finish line first to become the winner of the race.

And Hildebrand's car was up against the wall, not causing a significant safety hazard to the drivers coming up behind him.

"In the corner of my eye, I saw [Hildebrand] hit the fence," Wheldon said after the race. "I just carried on by. You have to make it to the bricks [the finish line at Indy] with a car that can go forward. At that point, I knew it was mine."

The Coca-Cola 600 had a different situation on a green-white-checkered restart at the end, but the goal for race officials was the same. This one, however, has the conspiracy theorists running wild because Dale Earnhardt Jr. was involved.

Kasey Kahne was first at the GWC, but he ran out of fuel and Earnhardt raced by him. He was long gone. Kahne's sputtering car caused a wreck behind him. Jeff Burton was sideways on the track for a moment. Other cars were damaged and smoking.

No caution was thrown. Junior Rule, the skeptics quickly proclaimed. NASCAR swallowed the whistle and let it go hoping Earnhardt would get the victory.

Everyone knows an Earnhardt victory in one of NASCAR's biggest events would do wonders for the sport, but I believe NASCAR officials would have reacted the same way regardless of who was leading at that moment.

The wreck was behind the leaders, so they waited to see if the track cleared, and it did. Had Earnhardt come back around for the final lap with cars still on the track in Turn 1, NASCAR would have turned on the yellow lights.

That brings up another question. Would they have waved the yellow before Earnhardt crossed the line to start the final lap or after he crossed it?

It makes a big difference. If NASCAR had thrown the flag after Earnhardt took the white flag, the race would have been over. The field is frozen and Earnhardt would have won because he did cross the finish line on the final lap, coasting across when he ran out of fuel.

Talk about controversy. Imagine if NASCAR had thrown the yellow after Earnhardt started the final lap when everyone could see the track was clear ahead of him.

[+] EnlargeDale Earnhardt Jr.
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesDale Earnhardt Jr. could have been the winner Sunday night had NASCAR officials thrown a caution flag at the right time.

NASCAR didn't, even though it would have guaranteed an Earnhardt win, because the track was clear to finish the last lap.

Earnhardt's gas tank ran dry going into Turn 3 and the storybook ending failed to materialize. But NASCAR, like IndyCar, did what it should have done to try to let the racers decide the outcome.

When to throw a caution flag is always a subjective decision. Coca-Cola 600 winner Kevin Harvick was upset about a debris caution earlier in the race. He talked about cautions afterward.

"When you have a caution and it's not falling your way, you're going to be mad," Harvick said. "It's just the nature of the beast.

"One thing I have learned is there has to be a judge. There has to be somebody who's going to say, 'Yep, there's debris on the track.' There has to be somebody making the calls, and I'm glad I don't have to make them."

People often will question the timing of when a caution happens, why it happens, or whether a caution should have happened.

That's true for both races Sunday, but both ended the way they should have. The man who crossed the finish line first with the pedal on the floor won the race.

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