It wouldn’t be Talladega Superspeedway weekend without some old-fashioned blocking, which as it turned out, wasn’t limited to the track. When the inevitable questions came about the rulings NASCAR officials made in determining out-of-bounds penalties in Sunday’s Cup Series Playoff race, eventual winner Denny Hamlin was quick to parry.
“No, no,” Hamlin interjected, his interview reflexes just as sharp as his late-race driving skill. “Called it all day. It’s a non-story.”
If not a story, it was at least a compelling plot line. NASCAR officials penalized a handful of drivers for forcing their competition below the double-yellow line that separates the racing grooves from the apron in Sunday’s YellaWood 500, and the judgment calls were at their most prominent in the third and final overtime. And after the engines shut off at Talladega, some conjecture about the rule’s merits cranked anew, even as a top NASCAR competition official explained the final-lap ruling as “clear-cut.”
Hamlin dove low in Turn 4 to avoid a final-lap accident in a scramble for the lead; his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was not docked for the evasive maneuver, and he held on for his seventh victory of the season, advancing to the Round of 8 in the NASCAR Playoffs. Matt DiBenedetto, however, was penalized for chopping down to push William Byron’s No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet below the double-yellow line as he tried to hold onto the top spot.
DiBenedetto’s apparent second-place finish was negated and his No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford was credited with 21st place, next to last on the lead lap. That was just ahead of Chris Buescher, who was assessed a similar penalty for crowding Chase Elliott out of bounds later in the final lap. Officials reversed an initial penalty on Elliott for traveling below the line, determining after a review that he was forced there by Buescher.
Elliott’s fifth-place finish was restored, and Buescher took 22nd — last on the lead lap after the tail-end-of-the-field penalty was assessed post-race. Those penalties followed two calls for forcing his rivals out of bounds that went against Joey Logano, who led the most laps (45) but finished 26th after a late crash.
“It was pretty clear‑cut,” said Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, on the final-lap rulings. “The 21 (DiBenedetto) hung a left, drove those guys down below the line. We called that twice on the 22 car (Logano) during the race, so nothing different there. On the 24 (Byron) and the 11 (Hamlin) being down there, I mean, in our judgment they were down there to avoid a wreck.”
NASCAR officials explained the rule in the pre-race drivers’ meeting and again in the crew-chief handout before the race. “Drivers must race above the double yellow line,” the handout reads. “If in NASCAR‘s judgement, a driver goes below the double yellow line to improve position, that driver will be black-flagged. If in NASCAR‘s judgment, a driver forces someone below the double yellow line in an effort to stop them from passing, the driver may be black-flagged.”
The rule was established in 2001 at Talladega and sister track Daytona International Speedway as a safety measure after a series of incidents where drivers dipped to the apron to make passes and, in certain instances, lost control in the infield grass to cause multi-car stack-ups. The aftermath has meant fewer brazen low-lane passes but has opened up race officials up to making judgment calls (think: pass interference in football or a block vs. charge call in basketball).
Sunday’s results sparked a post-race motion from NBC Sports’ Dale Earnhardt Jr. — a dominator at Talladega and Daytona in his racing days — to abandon the rule. But some of Sunday’s top finishers were quick to scuttle that thought, wary of a return to the heightened lawlessness of superspeedway racing from 20 years ago.
“Sometimes when you go below the yellow line, it’s not totally your fault, but it is the rules,” said Ty Dillon, who finished a career-best third. “It comes down to a mental decision, am I going to lift or go below the yellow line. We know the rules before we get here. I think if you were to open it up and take the yellow line away, you’re going to have guys blocking all the way down to the grass, have twice as big of wrecks.
“I don’t think we want to open up that can the worms. We have plenty of race track we can go four‑ or five‑wide on. It’s a product of what we do. I don’t see anybody at any fault for any reason. I don’t think anybody tried to bend the rules to get an advantage. I think it’s just a product of what happens here.”
Said Miller: “I mean, outside of putting a wall there, I don’t really know what more we can do. I do sincerely believe we need the rule. You see all the real estate that’s around here. If we started having cars running 12-wide down the back straightaway, imagine what would happen when you get to Turn 3.
“I think it’s important that we continue to have a rule. You get out there in the heat of battle, things happen. It’s hard when there’s all that real estate down there, but you just can’t do it. I don’t think that we can eliminate it. I think it would be a mess. We kind of are where we are.”
Hamlin said the two earlier calls that affected Logano’s day set the tone and established precedence for how the rules would be enforced. He also said his final-lap maneuver wasn’t purely intended to gain an advantage but was for survival in “flat-out avoiding a wreck.”
Hamlin said he’d previously been on the receiving end of the rule’s sting.
“Finally they put their foot down and said, ‘this is the rule, we’re going to enforce it,’ ” Hamlin said. “You can’t as a leader, wherever you are, use the yellow line as a defense. You have to play within the boundaries that they set. In NFL they had force‑out rules, things like that. They got rid of it. It’s the same kind of thing.”