Sunday, June 20, 2010

Commentary: The Umpire May Be Blind, But He's Probably Not A Crook

Denny Hamlin called NASCAR on the carpet in the moments following the “Heluva Good Sour Cream Dips 400” at Michigan International Speedway, accusing officials of manufacturing a phantom caution to tighten up the field in the race’s final laps.

Hamlin held a huge lead with 15 laps remaining when a debris caution eliminated his 10-second advantage. He easily fended off the advances of Kasey Kahne and Kurt Busch to claim his fifth win of the 2010 season, but climbed from his FedEx Ground Toyota and lambasted what he claimed was an attempt by the sanctioning body to intentionally manipulate the outcome of the race.

“This is show business,” said Hamlin, adding that he expected the late caution flag. His comments touched off the biggest avalanche of conspiracy theories since Tony Stewart’s ill-fated “WWE” analogy a few years back, and while some of his fellow drivers supported his claim, others did not. Second-place Michigan finisher Kahne said he observed debris on the track prior to the final caution, while Ryan Newman said he actually ran over the debris, causing damage to his car that helped drop him to a 32nd-place finish.

A week later, Hamlin was still in an accusatory mood.

“There is always debris around the track,” he said to reporters at Infineon Raceway. “You can call anything debris... and that it is a legitimate safety hazard, but I just think it’s the timing. (NASCAR says) ‘OK, there it is, let’s pick it up and regroup.’ For the sake of show, that’s OK. But for the sake of competition, it’s not always the right thing.”

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver tempered his comments somewhat, saying, “If NASCAR had let (the race) go, people were going to be talking about a boring race. That’s something we don’t want, either. I think that sometimes, they just don’t throw the caution. Sometimes they just kind of let it go, when maybe things are getting mixed up. Other times, when things are spread out, (they say) `Let’s tighten it back up.' You don’t have to be so smart to realize that these things are just by chance.”

To the surprise of no-one, NASCAR denied Hamlin’s claims, with spokesman Ramsey Poston saying officials throw caution flags for debris whenever they believe safety could be compromised.

“When we identify something, or there is something on the track that can’t be identified, we are going to err on the side of safety and throw the caution,” he said. “Cautions exist for the safety of the competitors and fans, and we take that very seriously. I suspect drivers would have a different point of view if they were to hit that piece of debris... and ruin their day, or worse.” He added that officials often receive false reports of debris on the track from drivers hoping to benefit from a late caution, further complicating their jobs.

Poston also said it is up to the drivers – not NASCAR -- to put on a good show. “The racing is in the hands of the drivers,” he said. “They are the ones who are responsible for putting on a good show by going out and racing as hard as they can. We can’t get goaded into going lax on safety, and we won’t.”

Second-guessing and complaining about the referee are common practices in every sport. But only in NASCAR do competitors accuse the officials of being – not only incompetent – but corrupt. Only in our sport do drivers like Denny Hamlin accuse the umpire of intentionally making an incorrect call, in an attempt to manipulate the outcome of the game. NASCAR could silence the conspiracy theorists by fining drivers who publically criticize officials. Every other professional sport does it, as does the NCAA. But NASCAR chooses to let its athletes vent, even when they put their own best interest ahead of the integrity of the sport itself.

Drivers openly admit “fudging” debris reports in an effort to draw late-race caution flags, and some have even created their own debris cautions by tossing items onto the racing surface. The athletes clearly cannot be trusted to provide honest, accurate information on track conditions, so the responsibility must necessarily fall on the officials.

Did NASCAR blow the call at Michigan? Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. It’s all a matter of perspective and personal agenda, and nobody (NASCAR officials included) knows with 100% certainty where the truth lies.

In the end, perhaps we should adopt the same attitude embraced by fans of other professional sports. We don’t have to like the call, but we do have to accept it and trust that while the referee may be blind, he’s not a crook.

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