In his fourth consecutive victory at Talladega Superspeedway nearly 15 years ago, Earnhardt went below the yellow line while passing Matt Kenseth for first and led the final two laps. He wasn’t penalized.
There are some parallels to the penalty Stenhouse received Sunday for driving below the yellow line to complete a pass of Busch. In both instances, Kenseth and Busch moved down the banking and then swerved back up when they seemed to realize a car was on the inside.
Compare the incidents in these videos (the Earnhardt pass occurs at the 3:14:30 mark):
There are some critical distinctions:
–Kenseth’s No. 17 Ford swooped down from much higher up the track — about three lanes — than Busch, whose No. 18 Toyota was in the lane above Stenhouse’s No. 17 Ford.
–Stenhouse’s tires were below the yellow line earlier roughly when his Ford had just cleared the left-rear quarter panel of Busch’s Toyota. The left front of Earnhardt’s No. 8 Chevrolet doesn’t dip under the yellow line until the car is nearly even with Kenseth’s car.
But in both cases, Earnhardt and Stenhouse went below the yellow line before clearing the car above them.
NASCAR even conceded this after Earnhardt’s victory in explaining why it didn’t issue a penalty.
“This was a judgment call very obviously,” late spokesman Jim Hunter said. “There is no question that [Earnhardt] went below the yellow line. … He already had passed (Kenseth).”
“I ran [below the line] to keep from running into him,” Earnhardt said after the race. “By that time, I was already past him.”
Before that April 6, 2003 race at Talladega, drivers were given the same ground rules by NASCAR in the prerace meeting: Cars that improved their position by crossing the yellow line would be black-flagged.
Reaction from other drivers after the race was mixed. Jimmie Johnson, who led a race-high 65 laps and had been battling with Kenseth for the lead, said Earnhardt “was clearly below the yellow line. I didn’t think it was a legal pass.” Asked afterward if he would make the same maneuver, runner-up Kevin Harvick said, “that’s a good question. I’ll plead the fifth on that one.”
Sunday’s race promises to spark a new round of questions from drivers, who could be seeking clarification from NASCAR on judgment calls made in a game of inches at 200 mph.
Stenhouse posted on Twitter that his only option would have been to wreck the field by holding his line and making contact with Busch. NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell has said Stenhouse could have avoided a penalty by immediately yielding the spots he gained on the pass.
“It is a judgment call, and people are mostly going to disagree when we make judgment calls, but that’s OK,” O’Donnell said during his weekly spot with “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “We try to be clear as we can in the drivers meeting that if you go below the yellow line, you cannot advance your position. In this case, we saw (Stenhouse) go below the yellow line, advance the position.
“When we have not made the call is if that position is given up or if that car kind of backs off and gives that position back, we’ve been OK with it historically. That didn’t happen, so in this case we had to make the call. We viewed it as a pass that was maintained below the yellow line.”
NASCAR has been enforcing the yellow line rule since the July 2001 race at Daytona International Speedway.