CONCORD, N.C. – Martin Truex Jr. watched every agonizing millisecond of the moments leading up to the crash that cost him a victory last year at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval .
Truex’s Toyota was leading entering the final chicane, but Jimmie Johnson was hanging out his No. 48 Chevrolet trying to find the speed to take the spot.
The seven-time series champion locked up his brakes entering turn 16 and spun sideways through the chicane … and directly into Truex, who dutifully had completed a right turn into Johnson’s path by keeping his car in between the curbs at NASCAR’s behest (watch the video recapping it above).
“It was just crazy the way he spun and went across from behind me,” Truex recently told NBC Sports. “I was surprised he spun back across the track and hit me. And honestly in that moment, I seen it happening. I looked in my mirrors seeing him in the grass, coming toward the back of my car.”
A split-second decision had arrived. Truex could cut the chicane and likely avoid the crash.
But NASCAR’s rules are that straight-lining either of the layout’s chicanes require a stop and go penalty served on the frontstretch. If it happened on the final lap, a postrace penalty of 30 seconds would be applied – assuredly costing Truex the victory.
He elected to run the corners and still paid a price.
“If I go straight here, I think they’re going to take the win from me,” Truex said. “I just tried to turn and get some of that curb, and that’s when he clipped me. It was a crazy situation the way it happened, but I wasn’t surprised at the move or what he did.”
Sunday’s race almost certainly will present several Cup drivers with the dilemma of whether they should cut the chicane and risk the ire of NASCAR … which says in prerace meetings that “if a competitor is judged to miss a chicane to avoid an accident, NASCAR (in its discretion) may forego penalties.”
Putting the onus on NASCAR to make a judgment call is a risk-reward proposition that will is complicated by Sunday being a cut race that will determine which dozen cars advance to the second round of the playoffs. Every point will matter for at least 10 drivers, and it could be dicey putting their fate in the arbitrary hands of the scoring tower
In Saturday’s Xfinity Series, race Christopher Bell felt he was forced off the track by Chase Briscoe and thought NASCAR might allow dispensation. He instead was sent to the rear after skipping the stop and go.
“Briscoe didn’t leave me any option besides running off the racetrack,” Bell told NBCSN about cutting the chicane. “I knew it was a penalty to miss the chicane, but there was a clause in there in the driver’s meeting where if you missed the chicane due to an incident, NASCAR would review it. I figured that me getting run off the race track and having no other option was a justifiable reason, but I guess not.”
It also could be a tough decision for the second-place driver, as Johnson was last year. The Hendrick Motorsports driver was eliminated from the playoffs by a point because he served a stop and go penalty for missing the chicane in his last-lap spin.
A year later, Johnson now says he would have finished the race and lived with whatever decision NASCAR made on a penalty – and he agrees with Truex’s remorse.
“In that particular instance, it would have been smart for both of us just to stay in the gas, or he could have turned down and gone straight,” Johnson told NBC Sports. “But I don’t think he had a clue where I was. That’s the one thing is watching on video is way different than sitting in the car.
“I’m sure the spotter didn’t know what to tell him. I wasn’t inside of him or next to him, I just came around backwards and cleaned him out. So it was a hard one to get right. … I think NASCAR at least said they would have penalized me, but I would have loved to put that pressure on them and see.”
What will drivers do today if they find themselves in the same position as Truex?
If you are leading, is the smart play cutting the chicane to avoid a potential accident and forcing into NASCAR to make a call?
NBCSports.com put that question to several drivers over the past two days at Charlotte. Here are their responses:
Ryan Blaney: “Honestly, I don’t know. It’s not really anything I’ve thought about. That’s an in the moment decision and you have a split-second to kind of make that decision, so I don’t know. I guess that would be a NASCAR judgment call if he would have just said, ‘I’m going to go straight,’ and gas up and not letting him hit me, I don’t know what NASCAR would do in that situation, so that’s up to them. I think there is some things where you kind of can almost point to it as they say you can go down pit road to avoid a wreck and reclaim your position, so would that be avoiding a wreck? I don’t know. That’s tough to kind of speculate on because it just didn’t happen that way, but I’m not sure. If we find ourselves in that spot, I don’t know which one I’d do. You don’t really think about that beforehand you just kind of whatever you feel at the time and you’re kind of jerk reaction. That’s really how it is, so I’m not sure.”
William Byron: “Yeah, that’s a good question. I would run the corner because you can’t expect them to give you the benefit of the doubt. It’s the rule and they’ve been pretty strict on those things lately, whether it’s pit road or anything. I would be really hard pressed to just cut it short and hope that they would make the call that I would want them to make, I guess. There’s really nothing you can do if someone is spinning there and they collect you. I think it’s just bad lucky, really. I don’t know. I think we will be reaching that chicane a little bit slower this year, so it might not be quite as easy to spin out locking up the tires. But we saw in practice that it’s really easy to lock up the tires in general. I would try to run the chicane there, maybe just stop and let him spin. But I don’t really know.”
Clint Bowyer: “Jimmie actually hit him, too, even before, but then he came back and wiped him out anyway. I don’t know even if he would have went straight, Jimmie still would have wiped him out. I understand going back and looking at it, yes. I think that contact warranted enough of, ‘Hey, I was trying to stay on track, sir! He removed me from the racetrack!’ I think that warranted it enough, that if he would have went straight through there, and Jimmie wouldn’t have hit him a second time, I still think you have to give him the win. I feel like that’s the right thing to do. In the replays I watched, I felt like if that would have happened, the fair thing to do, even if I was Ryan Blaney, the fair thing was for him to still win the race, even if he didn’t make the chicane as far as the rulebook, because it wasn’t his fault that he didn’t. (Will more drivers cut the chicane this year in that instance?) “No, no, no. I think it was an extreme situation. Again, he had contact. If I’m rolling into the chicane on the back straightaway, and a guy hits me and knocks me on the entrance into that deal, and I miss, first of all it ain’t like you’re going to gain 10 mph anyway. Once you knock the cars out of the grip zone, you’re out of control until you figure out to get that thing back underneath you anyway. You’re going to have enough of a dock as far as time standpoint that I feel like it’s OK. I don’t know what the ruling is on that. That would be how I would interpret it and how I would handle it if I was the sanctioning body or track promoter or whatever. We’ve all done this a long time. I have dirt late model teams that race all over the country. Same sanctioning body but different tracks. We race under a lot of conditions, and I see a lot of situations play out. Nine times out of 10 just like anything in life, common sense usually prevails.”
Kyle Busch: “Ummmm. Hmm. I don’t know. You hate putting NASCAR in that position to make a call because more times than not, it’s probably not going to go your way – my way.” (Is NASCAR a stickler for ensuring the entire course is run?) “Yeah, they are. We are on the cool down lap and instead of getting yelled at and whatever, I went ahead and did the chicane on the backstretch and it’s pretty simple to just roll through there straight and not have to slow down for it because it’s pretty slow over there. Your motors are shut off and you don’t have power steering and all that stuff, but you’ve got to fire up and go through there normal.”
Chase Elliott: “It’s not going to benefit you. They’re going to make sure it’s not going to benefit you, so as long as that’s the case, I don’t think it’s very tempting.” (So NASCAR would take the win away?) “Yeah, probably so. I don’t see how they couldn’t from what I’ve heard and talking about it. The way it was explained to me, if you cut it and if you stop and you’re still ahead of the guy, they’re going to put you behind in the first place, I don’t see how make that loophole work. It’s the fair way. For fairness, running the course as they have it designed is probably the right thing.”
Denny Hamlin: “If you’re in the lead, there’s no way you should cut the chicane, because then you’re putting NASCAR in a judgment call. If you’re second, maybe you should cut the chicane. But when you’re in the lead, the second-place guy still has to get around you. Jimmie never did get around him as it turns out. I think you have to stay on track and do the right thing.”
Erik Jones: “That’s a quick decision. I don’t know if you can think that far ahead. I think they would just black flag you. I know they wouldn’t want to, but I think any way you cut it on that deal, you’ll be in a similar position. It would be a tough call for them for sure. You’re taking a win away, but I think they wouldn’t hesitate to black flag someone for it. It’s a stick and ball call. It’s a strike or a ball. It would be tough to put them in that position to see what they’d do. I think they’d stick to their guys and penalize you, maybe if you’re avoiding a wreck, you might get away with it. It’d be really tough to say.”
Brad Keselowski: “I can’t say I’ve thought of it. Those are easy things to talk through and generally when you get in the moment it’s a lot different. I think it’s easy for us to say that now because you could see the result, but when you’re in the car I’m sure Martin couldn’t see the 48 spinning beside of him, so I would imagine if I was in that spot I wouldn’t be able to see it either.”
Kyle Larson: “Yeah, I don’t know. I feel like the rules here for this road course race are unique. There’s a lot of stop and go. I feel like typically, like in any form of auto racing that races road courses, I think you just try and blend back in where you didn’t gain any advantage. To me, I feel like that’s how it should be. They made that call on Kyle last year when he cut the first corner on that restart to kind of avoid the contact that was happening in Turn 1. And because he blended back in line, they let it go. So, I don’t agree with the stop-and-goes because you get penalized pretty harshly by having to come to a stop. They’re not going to change it, but I would rather them just do it where you can blend back in line with no advantage and that would be okay. So in Martin’s case, if that was the rule, he probably would have gone straight through the chicane and he would have been okay. Last year, he knew he would have to come to a stop and would lose the win that way. So he tries to complete the corner, and he didn’t. Yeah, it’s just weird, weird stock-car rules.” (So would you cut the corner?) “I don’t know. It’s hard to say until you’re in that moment, really. That’s a split-second decision. Maybe now he’s got a plan, but I don’t know.”
Joey Logano: “Hmmm. At that point, he can’t see where the 48 is going to go in the mirror. You’re on the binders so hard, and you’re trying to make this turn and grab downshifts. At that point, your spotter just has to tell you what to do. And I’ve had this conversation already, but you just have to have someone tell you what to do. Because ahh, hell, I don’t know. If you blow the chicane, you have to stop. That’s the rule. So I would assume they’re going to keep on with that rule. And then the 12 is going to win. Maybe. Probably. Most likely. It probably would have been a quicker way to get back to the start-finish line. But I don’t know. I don’t know. I hope I’m just in contention coming to the last corner like that. That’s a good spot to be.” (When you said you’ve had this conversation, it was specifically about that instance?) “Yeah, of what happens. I just spun out in practice right through that section. I said ‘Hey, if someone does that to me, you really have to coach me on where to go because you can’t see. They’re in their blind spots back there, and you can’t see much.’”