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Did safety take a backseat in Sunday's Loudon 300? Or did NASCAR play it all right?

  You go, daddy! Mark Martin pulls off win number five of the season to open his title bid on a high....but this chase looks to be rougher than usual (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern

   Considering the high-profile NASCAR deaths here – Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin – and the safety issues raised at times, like the one where defenseless Dale Jarrett found himself dangerously stalled in the middle of the front stretch with the pack roaring down, NASCAR officials appeared to take a rather lax view of several safety issues in Sunday's Sylvania 300.
   And some drivers called them out over that.
   Ryan Newman said NASCAR should have been much quicker with that last lap yellow when AJ Allmendinger stalled after spinning, in a situation identical to the Jarrett incident a few years back -- which ironically perhaps led to the no-racing to the yellow rule itself.
   Ryan Newman: "They waited too long, I'll tell you that.
    "I'm going to go tell them that, because that's not safe.
    "You've got a guy sitting on the race track, and we've got adrenalin flowing, with 800 horsepower…and you don't question that.
    "You do what's safe and what's smart.
    "It didn't change the outcome of the race (holding the yellow so long before bringing it out). It might have changed one or two spots back farther in the pack, but it didn't change the outcome of the race.
   "And they need to be a little more heads-up with respect to that."
    Darian Grubb, crew chief for Tony Stewart, who dominated the regular season but who has struggled lately, called that slow yellow "absolutely stupid?
    "The No. 44 (Allmendinger) was sitting there the whole lap.
    "They could have called it way earlier. They just wanted to let the race play out."
    Jimmie Johnson, second in the standings now after opening the chase with a fourth-place finish, was in the thick of the battle for the victory when the Allmendinger incident occurred: "I don't know where the fault lies, because coming through (turns) three and four, I saw the lights flashing that the caution was out, and my spotter had told me that there was a car spun on the front stretch.
    "Technically in the middle of three and four I knew and kind of slowed down and pulled out of the way.
    "The guys in front of me were pretty occupied with racing each other and went flying down in there.
     "I don't know how we can have a better way to relay a caution to the drivers.
     "I know in some forms of racing they have little lights (on the dashboard) inside the car that flash yellow when the caution comes out.
     "That would have worked really good in this case, because there is such a short distance from where we were to where the problem was.
     "I saw the caution and checked up myself."
   Denny Hamlin, who wound up second after a post-race check by NASCAR: "With the lap car (Allmendinger) right there, I checked up for the wreck. 
    "I think when the caution came out we were ahead (of Montoya). We were leading (Montoya) the entire last lap, until right off turn four I checked up -- I didn't want to run into Mark…He had already checked up for the caution.
    "I heard that the caution had not been thrown, so I was trying to race Montoya back to the line…and Mark checked up.
    "I thought I saw caution lights before I actually heard 'caution.'  We just checked up -- and didn't want to have Mark have a damaged car in victory lane.  We knew the race was over."
   Should NASCAR have thrown the caution sooner?
   NASCAR's competition director Robin Pemberton: "We threw it in time for everyone to get slowed down. That way we give the fans as much of a race as we can.
   "But if you'd have thrown it (earlier), and AJ got going….."
   John Darby, NASCAR's Sprint Cup tour director, pointed out that in a situation like that at the end of Sunday's race, the drivers aren't racing toward just one 'finish' line or one particular scoring loop: "The field is frozen immediately when the yellow comes out, and it's not a line they're racing to, it's frozen at the last loop they've already come across. So there were nine different finish lines."
   Pemberton added that on a last lap situation like this, "we use video too" to determine the finishing order.
   So just where was the 'finish line'?
   "The finish line was wherever we threw the caution. Instantly," Pemberton said.
    "We freeze the field like that, and then on the last lap we go back to video and 'split the difference.'"
    Martin himself was generous with the call…just as he was at Daytona in 2007 when a similar situation – a 'slow' yellow – cost him victory in the Daytona 500: "Here they waited till they should have.
    "At Daytona, with cars wrecking, I'm not sure about that.
    "But they're doing the best they can. It just doesn't always work out for you as a competitor."
    The post-race criticism? "You respond by throwing the caution in time for the leaders to have a chance to slow down around it," Pemberton said.
    "Everybody was aware there was a car stalled. So the spotters are telling their drivers 'No caution yet, hang on.'
   "And when we throw it, they relay the message to their drivers, and the race is over."
    Martin conceded things got rather confusing in those final moments, with spotters yelling about Allmendinger's crash and his car stalled, and everyone awaiting the yellow…and waiting and waiting.
    "I went into a sort of conservative mode there," Martin said, though he was battling hard against Juan Pablo Montoya and Denny Hamlin for the win as he was hearing his spotter talking about Allmendinger.
    "But I sort of knew where AJ's car was and what he was probably going to do, so I picked up the speed…which is what you're not supposed to do, though," Martin said.
   "I was under the impression the race was over when the caution came out. But when those guys came up behind, there was a little bit of chaos.  There were some things going on and a little bit of confusion."
    In fact Jeff Gordon, who had a bad pit stop midway through the race, and struggled in 15th, said "I've got to see it on the video.
    "All I know is my spotter was saying there's a car in the middle, or stopped down low, on the front straightaway. I never heard him say 'Caution,' so everybody was still doing.
   "And then I saw the caution out of the corner of my eye and said I never heard the caution, and they said that's because it didn't come out until just now…and I was surprised by that."
   Another safety incident was on pit road, when Kurt Busch, coming out of his pit stall, hit David Ragan as Ragan was pulling into his pit stall. Ragan's car did a 180, but amazingly didn't hit anyone.
    Ragan said Busch's crew should have been more attentive and given Busch better information: "He was leaving, and if I would have slowed down, he would have hit me in my door.
    "In that kind of position, they need to be looking ahead to see what is coming in."
    Busch said "It was a fuel-only stop. It happens every time. Fuel-only stops put everybody in jeopardy.
   "I just didn't see him. It happened at the last minute. We're trying to run for a chase, and I just pulled out, and he was pulling in."

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