TALLADEGA, Alabama -- At restrictor-plate tracks such as Daytona and Talladega, drivers are told they are not allowed to drive below the yellow line that separates the apron of the track from the racing groove in an effort to improve their position. Consider it an out-of-bounds line, similar to a football field.
So when Regan Smith was forced below the yellow line on the final lap of Sunday's Talladega race, he stayed in that position heading to the checkered flag and his Chevrolet finished ahead of Tony Stewart's Toyota. Smith was operating on the premise that on the final lap of a race "anything goes," something NASCAR had set a precedent for in its Craftsman Truck Series.
In a truck race at Daytona in February 2007, Johnny Benson went below the yellow line and passed Travis Kvapil for second in a three-wide finish with winner Jack Sprague. Ramsey Poston, NASCAR's managing director for communications, appeared on The Morning Drive on Sirius NASCAR Radio after that race and said the yellow line rule includes a "caveat."
"When the drivers can see the checkered flag, you can get all you can get," Poston told show host Marty Snider and David Poole. Poston also said on that show that once the flagman had the checkered flag in his hand and is waving it, the area below the yellow line is not considered out of bounds.
Smith is a rookie for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. and had remembered that caveat when he made what he thought was the race-winning pass on the last lap. For a brief time, he thought he was the race winner but NASCAR called the order "20 to victory lane," meaning Stewart had won the race.
Smith then thought he would be awarded second place. Instead, NASCAR nailed him with a "pass through" penalty. Because the race was over, he could not pass through the pits, so Smith was placed at the end of the lead lap for an 18th-place finish.
Jim Hunter, NASCAR's vice president of corporate communications, explained NASCAR's decision after the race and it was contrary to what Poston had said in 2007.
"You cannot improve your position any time you go below the yellow line," Hunter said. "In our judgment, [Regan Smith] improved his position, and the penalty for that is a pass through, so he was moved back to the tail end of the longest line, or 18th position.
"At the drivers meeting, we clearly state that you cannot improve your position by going below the yellow line. We do not feel he was forced below the yellow line. Any time you get into a situation like this, there are going to be two different opinions. We respect Regan's view, but we made the call. We think it is the right call and the finish is final."
After surviving a crash-filled race at the end, Smith's great drive was ruined by NASCAR's decision.
"They always tell us in the driver's meeting if you get forced to the inside, then you can go for it, especially on the last lap," Smith said. "I really feel like we won this race. I saw the replay when I was pulling in here [to pit road] and I felt like we won that race. I could have caused a big pileup, and you don't want to do that either.
"I was pumping my fists like we won it because I thought we did. I still do think that we did."
This is another example of the ambiguity that comes with NASCAR's rules and why there is so much skepticism in instances like this, where what was considered to be fair game in a truck race in 2007 was ruled completely differently on Sunday.
Last year NASCAR was involved in a controversy when Greg Biffle ran out of gas on the final lap at Kansas Speedway in a race that finished under caution. He was unable to maintain minimum speed and was passed by Clint Bowyer. But NASCAR ruled that no car can pass under yellow and that Biffle's Ford had maintained minimum speed.
On Sunday, Stewart's car actually crossed the finish line second, so a better way to look at it, might be -- In order to finish first, first you must finish second.
Sitting in the press box at Talladega during the lengthy caution periods and two red flag periods, we in the media couldn't help but notice that the real race at Talladega is in the sky, not on the track.
The Talladega Regional Airport is located outside the backstretch of the speedway and that is where the team owners and drivers keep their fleet or airplanes and Lear Jets. As crashes and attrition knocked driver after driver out of the race, it wasn't long before this NASCAR Air Force began to transport participants back to their home base in North Carolina and elsewhere. At one point, Nate Ryan of USA Today humorously started wondering which driver was in which plane that just took off.
Once the sponsors find this out, they are going to be putting car numbers on the sides of planes and adding sponsorship too.
The bad economy and residual effects of Hurricane Gustav, which ravaged the Gulf Coast and left the southeast with a gasoline shortage, is taking a toll on NASCAR attendance.
A trip to Talladega was always a highlight of the season, as much to see the denizens of rabid -- if not highly-intoxicated -- fans as to see the unique form of racing. In past years, the track would be jammed pack for both of its race dates and fans would line up on the sides of Speedway Boulevard and turn it into a type of Mardi Gras" where practically anything goes.
But on my drive over from Atlanta on Thursday afternoon, it became quite apparent that this weekend would be different. The huge campground off Interstate 20 was sparsely populated compared to past years. And on Friday evening, the traffic on Speedway Boulevard was a breeze, when usually it's a hassle.
The real shock, however, came on Sunday, when traffic was not a problem on race day. Much to my surprise, there were no Alabama State Troopers directing traffic off Alabama Highway 77 because there was no traffic. In past years, a fan could spend several hours in traffic creeping to the main entrance of the track, but on Sunday it was wide open.
Pulling into the infield was the biggest shock of all -- virtually empty grandstands off Turn 4 and Turn 1, with the backstretch grandstands no more than half-full. In the past, crowds at Talladega exceeded 160,000; on Sunday it was probably two-thirds capacity.
Make no mistake about it, a crowd of 100,000 for any sporting event is a huge attendance. The IndyCar Series would love to have crowds that big for its races other than the Indianapolis 500, which draws over 300,000. But in a year in which some of NASCAR's fans have voiced disenchantment with the new car, the style of racing, the Chase for the Championship and other things, NASCAR's biggest test will come from surviving a weakening economy, which is having a detrimental impact on its crowds.
How big was Tony Stewart's win at Talladega on Sunday? To put it in football terminology, it would be like the Green Bay Packers winning a playoff game with Brett Favre as the quarterback in 2007 but knowing he would be playing for the New York Jets in 2008.
When Stewart announced he was leaving Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of this season to become owner/driver of Stewart Haas Racing, many thought he was taking a big step backwards in terms of competitiveness on a team that has never won a race as Haas CNC Racing.
And sadly, it appeared at times that the once formidable combination of Stewart, crew chief Greg Zipadelli, team president J.D. Gibbs and team owner Joe Gibbs was coming apart at the seams; just like the end of a relationship or a marriage.
With six races to go in the Chase there is plenty of time for Stewart to win another race or two at JGR. But if that doesn't happen, Sunday's win will stand as the final time this combination goes to victory lane together, ending an incredible 10-year run that produced 33 Cup victories and two titles in 2002 and 2005.
"Zippy and Tony and all of us together at Home Depot, there have been 33 wins and that's awesome when you think about it," Joe Gibbs said. "But it took us a long time to get this one. Zippy has gone through a lot this year with all that has happened with the race team."
It was Stewart's first-ever victory at Talladega, where he finished second an astounding nine times.
"If you were going to pick five or six race tracks to win at in your career, this is one of them," Zipadelli said. "For us to finally get that first win here after all the seconds and top-fives that we've had, it's cool."
But this season has been anything but cool for the driver and the team, who have often been highly critical of each other and not afraid to voice those opinions during the race.
Stewart and Zipadelli had their moments, such as the June Cup race at Michigan when a demanding Stewart screamed orders on the radio to the crew chief, only to be told off. Or when Stewart ripped his crew over the radio after finishing second at Richmond in the final race of the regular season.
"It's all been good," Zipadelli said. "There have been a few off days, but for the most part it's good. If I had my choice, I wish he was staying. But things are changing. I'm proud of everybody, that we got a win here, know that we're not going to go winless for a while season, all those little things that wear on you. The longer you go the more you wonder about it."
Said Stewart, "We finally had one of those days where everything went right for us; we were able to finish it off. There have been a lot of nights going home at night asking, "Man, what do I have to do? How long is this slump going to be? What do we have to do to get out of it?'
"At least for the next six days, I get to say that I'm out of it."
"Yeah, like I told everybody else, maybe he should have raced the rest of the day. I know that his fans won't be very proud of him sitting back there riding around like a pansy. But when he got up there and decided to start racing, it caused a big wreck."-- Kevin Harvick on Carl Edwards.
"Of course [Talladega] should be [in the Chase]. It's the most exciting race we have in the whole season. They'd be crazy not to have this race in the Chase. Just because crazy things happen out there and take a bunch of cars out; stuff like this can happen any race weekend. I don't see any reason why this one should be taken off." -- Jeff Gordon on whether Talladega belongs in the Chase.
"Guys were idiots driving into one another. That's the way you have to race any more. I include myself in that statement when I say it because that's the kind of racing we have out there. You've got to beat the rear bumper off the guy in front of you in order to get ahead; to make a move. And you're stacked up there three-wide, several rows deep, and it's like bumper cars at 190 mph. It's crazy. It's great when you come to the checkered flag and you see it and you're in one piece. It's awesome. But it's getting there, that's tough."-- Jeff Gordon on the style of racing at Talladega
"That's NASCAR racing. That's the Chase. That's each race. When you have 500 miles at any track, anything can happen. And that's why I'm happy that I'm 72 points up on the guys, but I'm still not comfortable. There is so much racing between now and Homestead. If we had 68 points going into Homestead, I'd be much more optimistic. But right now, I've got to keep my head down and keep digging for points."-- Jimmie Johnson on adding to his points lead at Talladega
The return to "normal racing" at Lowe's in Charlotte. This is the only night race in the Chase, and although the 1-1/2-mile ovals are "cookie-cutter" race tracks, this one has a lot of history behind it, built by flamboyant entrepreneur Bruton Smith in 1960. But what I like best about Lowes is that it's 25 miles from my house, which means I get to sleep at home every night rather than hit the road and travel.
Now, if only I could get Marriott points for sleeping at home, it would be perfect.