NASCAR made the right call to cut short Coke Zero 400

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NASCAR officials are likely going to come under criticism for calling the Coke Zero 400 after 112 of the scheduled 160 laps Sunday afternoon at Daytona.

They’re also going to likely draw some raised eyebrows that Aric Almirola, the driver of the legendary No. 43 Ford of Richard Petty Motorsports, won his first career Sprint Cup race in an albeit rain-shortened fashion, on the same weekend that Petty won the 200th and final race of his Hall of Fame career. I already can see the conspiracy theories flying that the race was fixed to reward Petty and his team, which obviously hasn’t won a lot since Petty’s last triumph 30 years ago.

But to all those who will criticize the sanctioning body, claiming the trigger to call the race was pulled too soon, or to raise the possibility that the result was less than earned by Almirola, it’s easy to understand your emotion — but not your logic.

Almirola just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and that’s why he came away with the win. It would have been the same set of circumstances if Brian Vickers (who finished runner-up) had been in the lead, or third-place finisher Kurt Busch, who led the most laps in the race.

No matter who won Sunday’s race, critics would have been their oftentimes illogical selves.

But  logic is why NASCAR officials chose to end the race when they did. After two major wrecks plus two rain delays, not to mention Saturday being postponed to Sunday, as well as all other parts of the weekend that were affected by the wet stuff, NASCAR did the right thing to cut short Sunday’s event. There’s no two ways about it.

Sure, fans want to see a full race, particularly those who were at DIS in-person. They all likely spent several hundreds of dollars not only for their race tickets, but also for transportation and lodging. Many came long distances to see a race end not even three-quarters of the way through the promised and promoted length.

But NASCAR was left with a no-win situation. When the rain came down heavy after the event was redflagged for the third time within only a relatively few hours, one look at the weather radar made it very clear: this race was not going to get done anytime soon.

In fact, with thunderstorms forecast at more than 60 percent chance for the remainder of Sunday afternoon and into Sunday evening, NASCAR was left with little option but to end the race when it did because had the race eventually resumed, it likely wouldn’t have been until Monday.

And even then, more rain was forecast.

NASCAR can control a lot within its domain, but weather isn’t one of those things. And unfortunately, rain is oftentimes the nature of the beast in east-central Florida in early July. It is one of the most unpredictable things there is. One minute, the skies look clear; the next minute, it’s deluge city. I can vouch for that first-hand. I looked at the National Weather Service radar just before the start of the race and after a small cell, it appeared as if the race would be high and dry once the track was dried.

Unfortunately, the weather radar was also fooled. In virtually the time it took to turn your eyes away from the radar and then back again to the screen, the conditions can — and usually do, as in this case — change. What looked like high and dry one minute became the promise of another deluge in the following minutes.

Had the weather eventually broke and the skies stopped raining, and had NASCAR tried to wait it out and dry the track, can anyone — particularly critics of NASCAR’s calling the race early — been able to assure us that there wouldn’t have been more carnage at Daytona? Would we have seen another 25-car wreck, as we saw 14 laps prior to the race being called (not to mention the 15-car wreck right after Lap 21)?

We all know how unpredictable Daytona and restrictor plate racing can be. Given what the field had already gone through, the odds were pretty likely that we’d see even more wrecks in what would have been the waning 48 laps (God forbid if we would have had a green-white-checker finish that had extended the race past its scheduled 160 laps). After all, this is Daytona, where all hell breaks lose typically in the final five to 10 laps.

I completely understand fans’ concerns that they want to see the amount of racing they paid for. They want 160 laps (or more, if there was a GWC). I’m sure many may left Daytona feeling cheated or gipped for not seeing a complete race.

But NASCAR had to do what was best for the drivers, the racetrack and yes, the fans. How many of those same fans had to leave to be back at work on Monday? How many would have to drive 100, 200 or more miles to get back home? Would it be wise to have the majority of those fans drive through the middle of the night — and likely through more thunderstorms to come — than to simply call it a reasonable day, a reasonable finish and to move on?

How quickly have many of you forgotten that NASCAR waited out nearly 6 1/2 hours of rain delay to complete the season-opening Daytona 500 back in February? NASCAR said it would make every effort it could to get that race in, and that’s just what the sanctioning body did.

It was the same case Sunday, but the odds and the elements were simply stacked too far in Mother Nature’s favor to try and finish a full race. Sure, the rain will end eventually — maybe by Tuesday or Wednesday (I’m being a little facetious here, of course).

NASCAR made the only call it could — and it was the right call.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”