Carl Edwards certainly has a legitimate beef with NASCAR over its handling of that crucial moment in Saturday night's Richmond 400...and so may the 88,000 fans at the track wondering just what the heck was going on (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Where is Morris Metcalfe when we really need him?
Gosh, darned, remember those great NASCAR scoring snafus in days of yore?
Haven't had a good scoring controversy in quite a while…..what with all these electronic gizmos and hidden scoring lines buried somewhere under the asphalt, and NASCAR's 'Trust us' scoring policies.
And Saturday night here the sport sorely missed Metcalfe's wit and wisdom and patience, when officials tried to explain just what happened in the Carl Edwards-Tony Stewart-Jimmie Johnson-Kyle Busch scoring snafu, which turned the Richmond 400 on its head in the final stretch.
Morris Metcalfe, the legendary NASCAR chief scorer for decades, who presided over an army of team scorers each race weekend, scorers armed with large notepads and sharp pencils, to mark the precise moment each driver passed, every lap.
And Metcalfe, with wit, was the go-to man after a race if there were any questions about who finished where, who passed whom when, and all other sorts of scoring arcana.
Quite a contrast to the deal here Saturday night.
When 88,000 paying fans and a TV audience of seven or eight million, and Carl Edwards and his team too, all got misdirection from NASCAR's own scoring monitors, and then watched a potentially dicey finish vanish abruptly in a mess of confusion, well, somebody ought to be answering up and apologizing.
NASCAR executives ought to realize that they've got a problem with all this.
Certainly one issue right now worth debating is this 'wave around' rule, which appeared to lead to part of the confusion.
Does this sport even need this 'wave around' rule, which so few in the stands or in front of their TV really seem to understand to begin with.
Legenday Morris Metcalfe, the sport's scoring boss for so many years (Photo: NASCAR)
Disregard for the moment the big picture issue of how NASCAR blew a shot at a great finishing battle here – Edwards versus Stewart versus Johnson – with its sequence of untimely, and controversial, penalties. (Though this sport could desperately use a feisty, fiery finish, as was shaping up here, after several weeks of lackluster racing and fan displeasure….)
And disregard for the moment that this whole flap is not just some academic argument, not when tour victories – as we all saw just last season – can determine the sport's champion. If Edwards, come November, comes up a victory shy in the championship race, he might well be looking back to this Saturday's night, where he was the dominant car, and wound up a frustrated ninth. (Was it ironic that Mark Martin, after winning the pole here, was still reflecting on that highly questionable NASCAR penalty from 1990 that wound up costing him the championship eight months later?)
Some are still trying to figure out just what went on during those frantic moments after a late-race caution, for Jeff Burton slapping the wall, came out just as most drivers had finished their final planned pit stops under green.
NASCAR hasn't been very forthcoming about the scoring shuffle during those moments.
Even winner Kyle Busch said he wasn't sure what was going on.
Not only was there the question of which driver earned the 'lucky dog' award and a free pass back to the lead lap, there was also the question of all those drivers, more than a dozen, getting a 'wave around,' free pass back to the lead lap.
Perhaps NASCAR should have taken a few more moments to sort it all out, and to explain it all to the confused crowd of some 88,000 and the TV audience.
The setting, however, was pretty clear: the scoring monitors showed Edwards as the race leader, the giant scoring pylon in the infield showed Edwards as the leader, Fox TV showed Edwards as the leader. And Edwards, just seconds before the key restart, said his scorer had been told by a NASCAR official that he was yes the race leader.
In the ensuing confusion, Edwards was blackflagged to the rear of the field by NASCAR.
Johnson himself had just had to serve a similar penalty for a rolling tire on his pit box.
So suddenly Stewart had the race point all to himself.
And instead of a Stewart versus Edwards versus Johnson battle to the wire, it was all Stewart…until a questioned late-race caution with only 14 laps to go put Busch in the driver's seat.
Whether or not NASCAR officials made all the right calls, it was obvious that not everyone at the track understood what was going on.
Maybe one point to consider here now is this 'wave around' rule, which is invariably confusing.
The 'wave around' was established a few years ago ostensibly to clear up an issue that new fans might not understand – that sometimes the leader of the race, after pit stops, winds up in the middle of the field, with a number of rivals ahead of him trying desperately to stay on the lead lap.
The 'wave around' lets those men ahead of the leader pass the pace car and go to the rear of the field for the restart, giving the leader clear air.
Perhaps, given how important clean air is these days, NASCAR could make for better racing by simply dropping the 'wave around' rule and led the leader restart in the middle of the pack and have to fight his way back to clean air.
If clean air means so much these days, why not eliminate this strange 'wave around' rule and force the leader to deal with a little bit of dirty air. Could actually make for some better racing (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Metcalfe was not only sharp and precise about the numbers his army reported – after all his full-time job was as an engineer at Western Electric in Winston-Salem – he also had a good bedside manner: the ability to defuse contentious situations…unlike the current crop of NASCAR officials, who preside over this sport with an uncomfortable sullenness, which was again front and center post-race Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway.
Whenever the new Hall of Fame gets crackin', Metcalfe should be one of the stars. But that's another story.
This is all about Saturday night….which was not NASCAR's finest hour, as far as scoring and officiating goes.
Now scoring snafus and questions are long part of NASCAR lore.
-- Famously, Junior Johnson kissing the Darlington beauty queens and celebrating victory in the 1962 Southern 500…only to find out several hours later that it was instead Larry Frank finishing first. Frank got the word from Metcalfe back at the hotel where he was packing for home.
-- And Brian France himself, now NASCAR CEO but then just a pencil-and-paper soldier in Metcalfe's army, found himself centerstage in the dramatic post-race scoring debate at Atlanta Motor Speedway back in 1978. In fact it was France who spilled the beans that Donnie Allison actually won that race, not Richard Petty, who had been flagged the winner.
Petty was holding court in the press box talking about the victory, when someone came in and whispered in his ear. Abruptly Petty got up and, without comment, left.
Then, with the official announcement of Allison as winner, the mob of reporters stormed out of the press box and out into the huge traffic jam, looking for Allison, in a car with Alabama plates, which of course didn't make the chore any easier.
-- Another famous scoring controversy occurred at North Wilkesboro, in 1990, when Darrell Waltrip went to the pits for a routine stop while leading late, only to return to the track and discover Brett Bodine the official race leader.
-- Some of the wildest scoring controversies came at old Nashville Fairgrounds Raceway, where the pit road was a smaller track just inside the larger half-mile. A car would pass the finish line twice, in the span of just seconds, while making a pit stop. The most celebrated controversy there was the Bobby Allison-Cale Yarborough debate in 1973. Allison actually finished the distance first, but scorers missed one of his laps and Yarborough was flagged the winner. Both men drove their cars into victory lane.
-- One of the most interesting scoring debates involved Bill France Jr. himself, at Pocono Raceway. When the pace car picked up the wrong leader one race, the lineup of cars was all fouled up. After watching and listening to officials vainly try to sort out the running order, France, in exasperation, just set the lineup himself, apparently just guestimating things. After the race, France was surrounded and peppered with questions by reporters naturally: 'Mr. France, did you really know where every one of those cars was running right then?' To which France cracked 'Of course I knew where every car was running. I'm the president of NASCAR.'"
You think scoring should be easy, eh? Once at North Carolina Motor Speedway, Junior Johnson let this journalist score a race for Yarborough. Yarborough won the race, all 492 laps of it…and my scorecard had him 18 laps short. Going into that afternoon, I hadn't realized that drivers there weren't scored as they crossed the start-finish line, but rather as they passed a mark on the wall between turns three and four, because that's where the scoring stand was. And the field of vision for that mark was about 1.8 seconds. Blink, and oops!
Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin put on a heck of a show in Friday's Nationwide race. Did NASCAR blow a chance at a similar hot finish in Saturday's Richmond 400? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
But we digress.
The story here is Carl Edwards and just what the heck was NASCAR doing at that crucial point in the race.
And instead of having Morris Metcalfe, and his stack of 8x11 scoring cards, a foot-thick, and Metcalfe meticulously re-running the race lap by lap, second by second in fact, to explain things to skeptics, well, Saturday night what we had was another sullen NASCAR official basically saying 'Tony was the leader, Carl jumped, and that's the way it is.'
Old-school NASCAR men might now be saying 'Show me.'
But that's not the way NASCAR does business anymore. Rather it's 'Story over, keep moving, nothing to see here.'
And all without even a smile.
NASCAR officials today just don't have style and flair and wit anymore
Another reason why NASCAR racing just isn't that much fun these day.
Kyle Busch celebrating his surprise Richmond 400 win, while Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson nurse their wounds (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)