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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