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

Helio Castroneves ‘hustling’ for IndyCar, IMSA rides; talking with four to five teams

Helio Castroneves IMSA IndyCar
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As his season gathers steam, Helio Castroneves said his prospects for finding new rides for 2021 in IMSA and IndyCar also are gaining momentum.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said Monday he is optimistic about landing in either or perhaps a combination of both series when Team Penske and Acura end their DPi partnership after this season.

“A lot of people I spoke with, four to five teams, are interested,” Castroneves said. “Whether it’s doing Indy 500 only, whether it’s pushing to do full time or do the sports cars as well. It’s been a very nice conversation.

LOOKING AHEADTeam Penske drivers seeking new rides for 2021

“I have a lot of respect for all the teams that have been talking, and I feel the same feedback. We just have to wait for their (sponsor) connections, and I’m also looking for some connections on my side as well, so hopefully we’ll be able to put this together and get something very soon.”

Given two decades of success with Penske in IndyCar and IMSA, Castroneves’ resume hardly needs burnishing. But the Brazilian has combined with co-driver Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura DPi to win the past two overall victories at Road America and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

But Castroneves, who doesn’t have a manager, said he has been working the phones hard rather than wait for the strong results to bring in the calls.

“At this point, I feel like I’m the one who needs to be talking to them because people need to know I want to continue racing and understand my desire,” Castroneves, 45, said. “There is opportunity, no question, in both (IndyCar and IMSA), which I’m really happy about it. However, because of the COVID-19, a lot of things sometimes have to be a little delayed. But I’m excited. Whatever the opportunity and whatever destiny guides me, whether IndyCar or sports cars, trust me I’ll be as happy as it could be and doing my 100 percent like I always did.

“It’s like politics, you need to be out there, good news or bad news. People have to make notice of your presence. I’m hustling. I want to continue to keep it going. Hopefully, we’ll have good news very soon.”

The news has been all good lately on track for Castroneves and Taylor, who hope to continue their run Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The No. 6 duo has surged to sixth in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship standings, 10 points out of the lead with four races remaining. After thinking there was “no hope” to be competitive after opening the season with three consecutive poor finishes, Taylor now sees an opportunity for a happy ending.

“With the program going away, Helio has won all the big races and given so much back to the team and left such a mark, he’s really part of Penske history,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s been an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of it. I’d like to leave my little mark as well. Helio has won everything except for a championship.

“Obviously, we’ve won races already together, but we can win a championship now. I think if both of us can do that together and both win our first championship for ‘The Captain,’ that would be an absolute dream come true, and we can tie a bow on it and be happy.”