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Long: Richmond calls raise questions about NASCAR officiating heading into playoffs

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RICHMOND, Va. — NASCAR told competitors before Saturday night’s race to let the event play out naturally on the track.

“We don’t want to get involved.’’

But NASCAR did in comical and confounding ways that raise questions about its officiating as the Cup playoffs begin this coming weekend.

Questionable cautions and questionable actions befuddled drivers Saturday night.

Where to start?

How about this: A wayward ambulance nearly cost Matt Kenseth a spot in the playoffs.

Just stop and ponder that.

Rarely have the words ambulance and racing produced such a ridiculous image since the time a gurney Buddy Baker was strapped to flew out of an ambulance and on to a track as cars sped by.

Had Kenseth lost his playoff spot because of an ambulance, it would have raised the specter of if NASCAR should add him to the postseason — as it added Jeff Gordon under different circumstances in 2013.

There’s more.

Saturday’s overtime finish was set up by a caution for a car 16 laps behind the leaders. A NASCAR official stated that debris came off the car, necessitating the caution.

Fine, but the bigger question is why was Derrike Cope on the track in the final laps?

His incident brought out a caution on Lap 398 of a scheduled 400-lap race. He was five laps down from the closest car, thus had no chance of gaining any positions in the regulation length.

Yet, by being out of the track — as is his right — his actions created a caution that changed the race’s outcome. Martin Truex Jr. led when the caution waved but wrecked on the last lap and finished 20th, while Kyle Larson won.

As the playoffs begin, NASCAR should order cars that are too many laps down from gaining any positions off the track in the final laps to avoid a repeat of what happened Saturday.

While some will say that every driver should be allowed to continue in case a race goes to overtime and they can gain spots there, drivers so far back should lose that right for the betterment of the race.

Also, it doesn’t do the sport — or the competitor that causes the caution in such a situation — any good.

The result was that an upset Truex was awarded a regular-season trophy after the race with the look of a person who had just had multiple root canals, found out the IRS wanted to audit him and that even his dog had turned its back on him.

Whee!

Oh yes, the race’s second caution was a quick trigger by NASCAR for what was described in the race report as smoke after Kenseth locked his brakes attempting to lap Danica Patrick.

“Smoke.” Not as in Tony Stewart but “smoke.”

Officiating affects every sport, but as the 10-race playoffs begin, the focus becomes sharper on everything NASCAR does and doesn’t do.

Since criticism for a debris caution late in the Michigan race in June, NASCAR has called fewer debris cautions, allowing for long stretches of green-flag racing regardless of how far the leader has pulled away.

This direction came a year too late for Carl Edwards in the championship race, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. noted Sunday morning in a tweet.

At Homestead, NASCAR called for a caution with 15 laps to go after Dylan Lupton wobbled through Turn 2 but continued in a seemingly innocuous incident.

Edwards led but on the ensuring restart blocked Joey Logano’s charge and wrecked, ending Edwards’ title hopes. The two cautions helped Jimmie Johnson win his record-tying seventh series title.

Maybe something else would have happened that would have required a caution in that race but should NASCAR’s season finale — or any other race — be determined in such a way?

No.

That’s why as each team examines all it can do these final 10 races, NASCAR needs to examine its officiating policies and makes sure that it abides by its hope of not wanting to be a factor in the race.

One only can hope Saturday night’s missteps are avoided the next 10 weeks, or a cloud could hang over the postseason.

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Kyle Larson wins Stage 1 at Miami, Brad Keselowski leads Championship 4 drivers

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Kyle Larson won Stage 1 of Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, dominating by leading 67 of the stage’s 80 laps, holding a nine-second edge when he took the checkered flag.

Meanwhile, here’s how the four Championship 4 drivers finished after the first 80 laps of the scheduled 267-lap event: Brad Keselowski is second, Kyle Busch is third, Kevin Harvick is fourth and Martin Truex Jr. in fifth.

Truex, with six of his seven wins this season coming on 1.5-mile tracks like Homestead-Miami, wasted little time to take the lead away from pole-sitter Denny Hamlin.

The first caution of the race came out on Lap 6 when Joey Gase appeared to blow a tire and hit the Turn 1 wall hard.

During the subsequent pit stop, the only Championship 4 driver to hit pit road for four new tires was Keselowski, putting him off-sequence of the other contenders.

The move worked, though, as Keselowski quickly climbed from ninth on the restart on Lap 9 to third by Lap 12 and second by Lap 14.

Larson, who also pitted with Keselowski, took the lead away from Truex on Lap 13 and held on for the remaining 67 laps of the stage.

On Lap 38, Jimmie Johnson blew a right rear tire and came to pit road for four new tires. Even though there was no caution, all four championship contenders pitted over the following two laps.

On Lap 58, Harvick passed Truex and into third place for the first time in the race, zeroing on Keselowski in second.

Johnson got into the wall again on Lap 60, even though there was no caution, and sustained moderate damage, pitting for four tires and fuel.

Kyle Busch passed Harvick to take over third on Lap 77.

Sixth through 10th were Chase Elliott, Kurt Busch, Hamlin, Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer.

Watch: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s fans on what the driver means to them

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The fan base of Dale Earnhardt Jr. is large and devoted.

Those fans, affectionately called “Junior Nation,” has voted Earnhardt as NASCAR’s most popular driver 14 years in a row.

Justin Hartley of NBC’s “This is Us” is a member of Earnhardt’s fan base. The actor narrates the above essay on the close relationship between the driver and his fans.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. talks to Bob Costas about his career, legacy before final Cup start

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Sunday marks Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s last start as a full-time Cup driver in NASCAR.

NBC Sports’ Bob Costas sat down with the 14-time most popular driver before the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway to get Earnhardt’s thoughts before he climbed in the No. 88 Chevrolet for the last time.

Earnhardt addressed what he hopes his legacy will be after 20 years in the sport as a driver, including his impact on attitudes towards concussions in sports in general.

Earnhardt, who will join NBC Sports in 2018, also talked about what life has in store for him in the near future.

Earnhardt also made sure to credit his devoted fan base for making his career possible.

“I understand the driving force behind my success and opportunity in this sport, whether it be inside the car or outside the car, is all because of Jr. Nation,” Earnhardt said. “This year we’ve tried our best to show appreciation to them.”

Watch the above video for the full interview.

 

Furniture Row Racing going for Cup title after year of success, tragedy

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It’s been a historic year for Furniture Row Racing, the Cup team that has its base of operations in an old water bed factory in Denver, Colorado.

With Martin Truex Jr. piloting the No. 78 Toyota, they won a team record seven races and a series record six races on 1.5-mile tracks. Combined with a dominating performance under the new stage racing format, Truex has put the team in its second Championship 4 in three years.

But it’s also been a season of perseverance and tragedy.

NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan narrates the above video essay on the story of Furniture Row Racing’s 2017 season.