The answer seems so easy

Updated: April 28, 2004, 3:08 AM ET
By Jerry Bonkowski | Special to ESPN.com

Junior
Earnhardt Jr.
Jeff Gordon
Gordon
Let's see if I have this right:

  • NASCAR throws the yellow caution flag with four laps to go in Sunday's Aaron's 499 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, and Jeff Gordon is awarded the victory over Dale Earnhardt Jr. However, Junior is initially scored as the race leader on lap 185 of the 188-lap event, and then suddenly, on lap 187, just one lap from the end -- and still under caution -- Gordon miraculously is scored the leader ... and eventual winner.

  • Less than a month earlier in the Food City 500 at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, NASCAR stops the action by throwing a red flag with six laps to go, allows a track cleanup, then lets the field go back to green-flag racing for the final three laps, with Kurt Busch holding on for the lead.

    Am I missing something here, or are these two scenarios very similar -- yet wound up with two completely different outcomes?

    Granted, there's one slight difference: Bristol was red-flagged with six laps to go, while Talladega was yellow-flagged with just four laps to go. And in most cases, NASCAR will let a race finish under caution if there's less than five laps remaining, as was the case at Talladega.

    But NASCAR officials also have the discretion to supersede that five-laps-to-go rule, as well. If they feel the race outcome is significantly on the line, they can do exactly what they did at Bristol: red-flag the event until everything is cleaned up, and then have a five-lap -- or less -- shootout to the checkered flag.

    It's hard to blame the thousands of fans at Talladega who littered the racetrack with debris after the announcement that Gordon was indeed ruled the winner and it was ending under caution. They were upset, and rightly so. Many of them came several hundred miles, spent several hundreds of dollars in travel and lodging costs, and spent probably well over $100 per person just on race day alone for admission, refreshments and souvenirs.

    And then, just when it appeared an exciting race would have an even more exciting ending, the plug was pulled.

    It was a cheap finish to a race that for the first 184 laps was anything but cheap. Even with the almost mandatory "big one" multi-car wreck earlier in the day, the field regrouped and gave the crowd close to three-quarters of their money's worth. But with the way the race ended, it's understandable that fans wanted their money back afterward.

    A good indication of how bad this finish was: I've received countless e-mails from fans asking my thoughts, or them venting theirs, and not one tome was in favor of how things wound up -- and some of them are die-hard Gordon fans.

    It was a cheap finish to a race that for the first 184 laps was anything but cheap. Even with the almost mandatory "big one" multi-car wreck earlier in the day, the field regrouped and gave the crowd close to three-quarters of their money's worth. But with the way the race ended, it's understandable that fans wanted their money back afterward.

    Since this type of thing usually happens at least once a season -- and it already has now twice this year in the first nine races -- isn't it time NASCAR finally puts together one consistent rule that will prevent something like Sunday's dismal finish from repeating?

    It wouldn't be that difficult, either.

    Why doesn't NASCAR simply make a hard-and-fast rule that every race must finish under green, period? That way, there won't be any cheap or controversial or unsavory finishes for drivers and fans. Let's face it, fans come to see the checkered flag wave alone, and drivers do their utmost to take that flag. Why short-change both by letting a race finish under yellow?

    With the exception of bad weather such as rain, or impending darkness at tracks that do not have lights, it's hard to imagine why NASCAR officials couldn't make things so much simpler by just mandating a checkered flag finish under green conditions for every event.

    Better yet, if a race is either placed under yellow caution or red-flagged, but it does have the opportunity to be restarted for a green-flag finish, how about a minimum of a two- or three-lap final shootout? Regardless if the race is scheduled for 400 or 500 miles or laps, give the fans the four-wheel equivalent of sudden death overtime (OK, so maybe sudden death isn't the best choice of words when it comes to racing, but you get the idea).

    Even if there's just one lap to go to the checkered flag, and the race is still under yellow, why can't NASCAR either keep the race going a few more laps until it can have a two- or three-lap final sprint to the finish under green? Or, why can't it just red-flag the race until the cause of the yellow is rectified, thus setting up a final two- or three-lap shootout?

    After all, since NASCAR makes the rules, then it can bend them or change them when needed. Instead of making so many people leave the racetrack unhappy -- fans and drivers alike -- and giving extra work for the trash collectors after a race, NASCAR's head honchos could very easily rectify things so that we never have another ending like the one Sunday at 'Dega.

    Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@MSN.com.

    Jerry Bonkowski | email

    Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
    Award-winning sportswriting veteran Jerry Bonkowski returns to ESPN, having previously served as NASCAR columnist/writer for ESPN.com from 2001 to 2004. A lifelong Chicago native, Jerry spent 15 years with USA Today, where he covered all sports -- with heavy emphasis on Chicago-area teams -- and the past 4½ years as National NASCAR Columnist with Yahoo! Sports.
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