Dale Earnhardt Jr. is right: NASCAR should eliminate the overtime line. In fact, it could go a step further than the 14-time most popular driver suggested and remove it at every track, including Daytona and Talladega.
Actually — if the goal is sanity and simplicity (admittedly, at the expense of some suspense) — don’t stop there, either.
Why not just dump the green-white-checkered policy, too, and end every race at its scheduled distance?
It’s a concept that worked fairly well from, oh, 1948-2004.
That seems overlooked in the annals of NASCAR history, largely forgotten alongside the myriad plot twists that formed an overtime policy whose potentially infinite loop reflects its contorted route to creation.
In order to weigh the merits of extending races, let’s absorb an extensive history lesson on how the green-white-checkered finish (and, eventually, the overtime line) came into existence.
The genesis was roughly June 6, 1998 at Richmond International Raceway, where NASCAR stopped a race with seven laps to go for nearly 15 minutes to clean up a messy oil leak. Without the red flag, the race would have ended under caution with Dale Jarrett winning. Instead, Terry Labonte bumped Jarrett from the lead after the restart, and an officiating trend was born.
For the next six years, NASCAR arbitrarily began stopping races after late cautions to help an attempt at ending a race under green. Eventually, a lap number was announced in prerace driver meetings as the cutoff for using a red flag to help finish a race.
This seemed to placate crowds until a few endings under yellow still drew major fan derision – in particular, two at restrictor-plate tracks.
The July 6, 2002 race at Daytona International Speedway concluded with cars weaving through a shower of several hundred seat cushions heaved from the backstretch grandstands in anger.
The April 25, 2004 race at Talladega Superspeedway was frozen under yellow with four laps remaining – just before Earnhardt seized the lead from Jeff Gordon, whose No. 24 Chevrolet was pelted by beer cans during its victory burnouts.
Nearly three months later, NASCAR instituted the green-white-checkered rule, and it first came into play at the 2004 Brickyard 400, where Mark Martin and Earnhardt blew tires on the extra 2.5-mile circuit around Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The new policy seemed here to stay, though, until …
In 2010, NASCAR tweaked its green-white-checkered rule during Speedweeks, adding three attempts at ensuring the final lap started at full speed. This stemmed from confusion over the rule during the TV broadcast of the season-opening Bud Shootout exhibition race.
A few days later, NASCAR told drivers during a preseason safety meeting that it would begin making three attempts at a green-flag finish. After grumbling from teams, it had an immediate impact – Jamie McMurray won the Daytona 500 on the second attempt at a green-flag finish (instead of Kevin Harvick, who was leading when the caution waved the first time).
This seemed to work OK until a spate of fan injuries in green-white-checkered finishes in the Truck, Xfinity and Cup series at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway from 2012-15.
The solution was to limit green-white-checkered finishes to one attempt in October 2015 at Talladega, the final plate race of the season. It resulted in a bizarre “non-attempt” that was waved off and followed by one of the most controversial finishes in NASCAR history.
So before the 2016 season, “NASCAR Overtime” was decreed with the addition of a line on the backstretch of every track. Once the leader crossed it after an overtime restart, the race wouldn’t be restarted for a yellow – but there would be unlimited attempts to breach the overtime line under green.
That seemed fine again until Sunday … when the overtime line became the primary determinant of a Cup winner for the first time, and NASCAR Twitter melted down in a storm of poorly applied Speedi Dri.
After nearly 20 years of tinkering, it seemed a tipping point.
You can’t please everyone all the time, but you can confuse many by overlaying countless rulebook Band-Aids to ensure conditions for a thrilling ending.
There is no shame in concluding races when advertised. It actually once was an accepted maxim among Cup drivers. Prior to July 2004, the party line was about clinging to the sanctity of race lengths that matched the same lap totals listed on the entry blanks.
It was a worthy crusade borne of competitive integrity.
Fans don’t have an inalienable right to enjoy a fantastic finish. Displaying the yellow and white flags together works fine for other series and prestigious races.
The 2013 Indianapolis 500, which featured a record 68 lead changes, ended with three laps of yellow and a standing ovation for winner Tony Kanaan from a crowd that seemed happy to catch its breath after three hours of breathtaking action.
There was no sense of anyone feeling cheated by a muted finish. There was just an understanding that sometimes events unfold that way.
Returning to its method of concluding races for 56 years undoubtedly would draw pushback for NASCAR. This isn’t a drastic change, though, so much as a digestible reversion, a la returning the Southern 500 to Labor Day weekend. It ultimately could be as well-received as Darlington Raceway’s triumphant reclaiming of its history, a throwback in the same vein.
As Earnhardt said in lobbying to eradicate the overtime line, “It’s the way they did it for 50 years, so I think that people would be OK with it.”
The green-white-checkered finish started with good intentions, among the first in a wave of fan-driven initiatives that also spawned double-file restarts and the Gen 6 car. NASCAR should be commended for listening, but the catering also can become counterproductive.
Instead of further tweaking to an artificial construct, perhaps it’s time to remove the green-white-checkered rule in the same way races should end.
A year after facing questions about why he wouldn’t close out races (by roughing people up), the Kyle Larson narrative now has shifted to why he can’t close out races.
Dover marked the third time in 14 races that Larson has lost the lead on a restart in the final 10 laps – twice to Jimmie Johnson in overtime.
It raises questions – which Larson understandably is growing tired of answering — about how an ace in the short-burst format of sprint cars can wrestle so much with quickly getting a stock car off the line.
Larson lost Dover in second gear, partly because he didn’t get a good jump, but also because Johnson got the perfect jump.
As NASCAR on NBC analyst Dale Jarrett said on NASCAR America, restarts aren’t something a driver can work on like free throws in basketball. It’s a skill that can’t be honed except in the moment.
Drivers can gain a modicum of experience with every restart, but Jarrett also noted that being in the second, third or fourth row is completely unlike restarting on the front row.
As Larson continues to set the pace – he led a career-high 241 laps at Dover – he will learn how to control a restart as well as Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch. And there was another very encouraging sign of maturation at Dover for the Chip Ganassi Racing driver.
His willingness to mix it up during the race with Johnson and Martin Truex Jr. showed he has learned lessons from the deference he occasionally has given too much to veterans.
Chase Elliott seemed to spend much of his rookie season in self-flagellation when things went wrong. The Hendrick Motorsports driver had seemed less frustrated with a stretch of four consecutive finishes outside the top 20 before placing fifth at Dover.
But Elliott, demonstrating acute self-analysis for a 21-year-old, said he hadn’t changed, and that it was easy to understand why.
Unlike the 2016 season, which was marred by driver and team errors that cost wins for the No. 24 Chevrolet, this season mostly has been themed by uncontrollable misfortune.
“There is no secret, if I make a mistake I’m going to be mad at myself, and that is just a fact, and that is the way I am,” he said. “You can like it, you can hate it, but that is just how I am. That is how I grew up, and that is how I’m going to be.”
During a week of hyperbolic and sanctimonious dissections of driver personalities, it was refreshing to hear a rising star make no apologies for just being him.
Regardless of whether the loose wheels at Dover for Kyle Busch and Chase Briscoe draw penalties, they already have generated too much discussion.
Legislating lug nuts mostly is an unnecessary distraction and embodiment of the busybody minutiae that sucks the oxygen from NASCAR’s more deserving storylines.
Near the beginning of the season, NASCAR said the goal was to move away from announcing midweek penalties so it could shift the focus toward storylines that actually move tickets.
It’s an admirable objective, but much work remains to keep garage and pit officiating in the background, where they belong.
Crew chief Chad Knaus gave a brief and coy answer (“Yeah, there is definitely some strategy. For sure.”) when asked whether it was a calculated risk to keep Johnson on track (and in the lead) with 70 laps remaining at Dover as other contenders pitted under green. The strategy effectively put Johnson in position to win when a caution flag flew.
Given the way Fords were having tire problems Sunday, it might have been less of a gamble and more of another triumph in three-dimensional chess by Knaus.
The critical caution came when Regan Smith’s blown tire ended 62 laps without a yellow – the longest green-flag stint of a race that also featured cautions for tire problems involving Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Landon Cassill, David Ragan, Kurt Busch and Joey Logano.
The crew chief of Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet probably knew the odds were stacked well in his team’s favor of catching a yellow late in the run.
Knaus, of course, would be the last to admit it.