Super Speedway racing in NASCAR is the most popular and generally most exciting entertainment offered by the sport, considered “appointment viewing” for the four races on the NASCAR calendar. Sunday’s YellaWood 500 at Talladega proved to be even more….incidental than usual, and fans are both red faced and red assed over the controversial results. I’ll save most of the details as by now most of you reading have an idea of what happened, but here’s a good overview of the issue. The topic at hand is the “double yellow line” that serves as an “out of bounds” for passing on the inside at Daytona and Talladega, which are the two high speed and high density race tracks that pose the greatest risk for spectacular accidents. Since the rule was introduced in 2001, some drivers that have crossed the finish line first were denied victory, and wild accidents have occurred when attempts to defend or force fellow drivers out of bounds conclude in an explosive shower of sparks and twisted metal. To my mind we’ve seen a crescendo of disappointing finishes where decisions in the scoring booth have robbed entertainment from the viewer, and yesterday’s race was the last straw. So why do we have this double yellow line rule, and what the hell are we supposed to do with it now?
The early 2000’s were a time of growing safety measures being put in place for NASCAR racing. In the 2001 Daytona 500 Dale Earnhardt was killed during a last lap accident which brought a close examination of all potential safety improvements that ruled over the rest of the decade. One such concern was centered around the risky passes and blocks taking place at both Daytona and Talladega. With driver deaths still very much on the minds of fans and the governing body, enough was enough, and the rule was quickly implemented. The trouble with this quick band-aid solution is that it was never proven to be an actual improvement to driver safety. It’s true, there have been no deaths in NASCAR’s top division since 2001, but much like Lisa Simpson’s rock that prevents tiger attacks, any argument in favor of the double yellow line smacks of specious reasoning. Consider the other safety improvements of the last few decades. Nearly all of them have hard evidence you can point to that shows the importance of that advancement. Mandatory closed face helmets? Geoffrey Bodine thankfully still has a face. No more racing back to the line for a caution? Dale Jarrett knows exactly why. SAFER barrier? Well hell, we see that each and every week. For the double yellow line we can actually make the case that there are more accidents simply because we have this poorly executed rule hanging over our heads four weeks per year, with the earlier linked Carl Edwards crash being the most notable example. Worse still, do we even know what the rule really is?
Most of Sunday’s vitriol comes from the inconsistency of the rule’s implementation. Think of the world’s worst baseball umpire, now imagine that guy suddenly becomes the deciding factor in four of the biggest events of the sport’s season…and that’s basically what we’ve been experiencing. Stock car racing is very hard to govern, and since no rule is going to be perfect, the subjective nature of this “balls and strikes” call makes it dead on arrival. The rule at its base states that you cannot advance your position by crossing the yellow line, but if you “force” another driver below the line yourself, you MAY also face a penalty. In essence, this has created an environment where there’s more concern about the orientation of a car’s intent to cross a painted stripe on the track rather than the goal of winning the race. I have a damn headache trying to even put this nonsense into words, and that has to show there’s a stem to stern problem with the whole idea. So frankly, it’s time to get rid of damn thing.
I am but a fan. I’ve written articles to the very subject that I have no and deserve no insider information nor that I have the slightest idea about what’s best for the drivers. But still, as that same humble fan, I must firmly insist that this rule and its subsequent execution has damaged my understanding of how racing works. Changing winners not based on an illegal car or engine, but off of the way they (safely) drove on the track is painful to watch as a fan. This is the sort of stuff that makes long time fans question the quality of the season’s most important events. Sure, it’s refreshing to hear some threats of long time fans leaving NASCAR forever due to an actual racing situation instead of someone insisting that racism is bad…but it’s still not a good deal. The last couple of weeks have shown that NASCAR as a governing body is listening to the desires of fans on a national scale with its new schedule, proposed race formats and projected car updates, so this one could be a slam dunk. Putting the safety and well being of the competitors back on the men and women themselves can only bring positive change to the sport. No, we don’t want to see gruesome accidents nor have to wonder the health of a driver we just saw fly into the catch fencing, but we’ve been seeing that for the entire 20 years of this dumb little experiment anyway, so let’s just call that a draw. The double yellow line belongs on a highway, but certainly not on the apron of a racetrack.
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