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May 22, 2022
Ryan Blaney won the NASCAR Cup Series All Star Race twice, but he shouldn’t have needed to.
Blaney not only withheld a charge from Denny Hamlin on two fresher tires but was also driving away from the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 and just feet away from taking the checkered flag when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. lightly grazed the wall and brought out a caution.
Under All Star Race rules, the non-points exhibition must finish under green and there would be unlimited attempts at a green-white-checkered.
The first problem is that the Stenhouse didn’t warrant a caution, especially with Blaney so close to crossing the finish line. The second problem is that Blaney unbuckled his window net in advance of his million-dollar celebration.
Not so fast.
NASCAR told him the race wasn’t over and that his window net would needed to be secured before retaking the green flag. This is typically performed by the strongest over-the-wall crew member and Blaney was only able to loosely reconnect the window net.
"I was angry for about three seconds when they said the race wasn't over," Blaney said. "Then it switched to, 'oh s--t, my window net is down, and I've got another problem to deal with."
No doubt fearing the blowback from potentially black flagging the Team Penske No. 12, NASCAR allowed Blaney to take the green flag with what appeared to be a flimsily secured window net, which then drew the ire of Hamlin.
After all, if Stenhouse lightly grazing the wall was a safety issue, then what does that make Blaney driving at 190 mph without proper driver side protection? Hamlin raced Blaney hard on the ensuing overtime, and what if Blaney had gotten turned around in front of the field?
To Hamlin, this isn’t a judgement call of some kind. It’s simply the rule and NASCAR didn’t adhere to its own policy.
"This isn’t a Denny Hamlin judgement call," Hamlin said. "I’m just saying, whatever the rule is, let’s be consistent and play by the rules. It’s unfortunate because he made a mistake.
"He should have won the race (the first time). He was a 100 yards from winning the race. But many cars have not won races because of a green-white-checkered or a mistake on a restart at the end. Those things happen."
Specifically, the race procedures require window nets to be 'properly tightened and remain tight during an event.' Drivers are occasionally called to pit road, even during a green flag or caution period, to tighten the window net.
"I nearly crashed him," Hamlin said. "What if I sent him into traffic and he has no window net, then what? Then they have a lawsuit on their hands. That’s the rule. I don’t know what we’re talking about here. That’s not a judgement call. You got to play by the f-----g rules."
For his part, Blaney understands where Hamlin is coming from, albeit with the caveat that Hamlin would feel the same he does if their positions were reversed.
"I'm sure he posted on Twitter right away."
"And I mean, I'd be upset, too, if I was in his position," Blaney said. "You're running second and the guy makes a mistake and puts the window net down, and you expect it to be handed to you and the leader get black flagged. …
"Obviously, I'm not going to say I'm frustrated about it. It worked out for us. We had the best car all night. We were leading the race three seconds before the last caution, but I can understand where he's coming from."
What’s harder to understand was the decision to call the caution as the race was effectively decided in Blaney’s favor. Speaking to the media after the race, NASCAR’s senior vice president of competition Scott Miller wishes the finish had played out differently.
"The race director looked up and we're not sure what he saw, but he immediately put (the caution) out," Miller said. "Wish we wouldn't have done that, but we did that, and we'll own that we probably prematurely put that caution out."
As for the decision not to call Blaney down pit road, Miller says race control essentially deemed that the safety net more or less looked latched enough.
"Coming to green, he was warming his tires on the back straightaway, you could clearly see both hands on the wheel warming the tires up," Miller said. "The window net was up. No way for us to know if he got it 100 percent latched or not. And at that point in time, no way we can be certain that he didn't get it latched. So, there's no way we could call him down pit road at that time.
"... If he couldn't get it to where it was up and we had some doubt that it was latched, then we would have had to do something with it. Because we wouldn't have allowed him to start if it was just laying down on the door."
The reason safety nets are important is best illustrated by the significant crash earlier in the race between Kyle Busch, Ross Chastain and Chase Elliott.
All of this is to say nothing of the fact that Blaney still had to go out there and win the race … again.
Had Blaney been beaten, gotten crashed or suffered some misfortune on the green-white-checkered, it would have been a tremendous political mess for a race that was effectively over. Put bluntly, it was becoming an embarrassment, but Blaney mostly put the narrative to rest by driving away from Hamlin over the final two laps.
"That was tough to do, kind of switching gears," Blaney said. "It was getting back to the job I had been doing all night -- having a good restart and getting through 1 and 2 right. I didn't do that very good to be honest, because my tires weren't really that cleaned up because I was so focused on getting my window net up.
"So, it was hard to kind of switch gears ... and I don’t want to ever have to do it that quickly again."
Nevertheless, Blaney won, earning a million dollars for the Team Penske No. 12.
The case could be made he deserved another million, but he is taking home a second prize of a different kind as a memento of the accomplishment.
"I’m going to frame that window net and put it over my mantle."