Column: NASCAR must button up its issues before playoffs
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By JENNA FRYER
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) This is supposed to be a shining moment for NASCAR, which kicks off its playoffs this weekend.
Instead, the excitement was on hold as the series licked its wounds from a rocky week on and off the track.
First, the Darlington winner failed post-race inspection and NASCAR ruled Denny Hamlin's victory "encumbered." That has to be the worst word in all of professional sports - it means a win won't count toward playoff eligibility - and the entire day leading into the regular-season finale was filled with drivers debating the issue.
Then came Saturday night's race at Richmond, where an ambulance picked the entrance to pit road to stop during a caution period. Avoiding the ambulance caused a race-ending accident to Matt Kenseth, and NASCAR caught a break when it didn't prevent him from securing a spot in the playoffs.
But the drama didn't end with the wayward ambulance. Martin Truex Jr. had victory snatched from him because of a late caution and he ended up crashing. He and his team looked downright miserable accepting the regular season title trophy.
Come Monday morning, NASCAR executive vice president Steve O'Donnell acknowledged series officials "had a rough night" at Richmond and would meet this week to clean up any issues before the playoffs begin at Chicagoland Speedway.
"Tough night for the guys up in race control," O'Donnell said in his weekly segment on SiriusXM's NASCAR channel. "We're certainly going to meet and make sure we put our best effort forward heading into Chicago."
In admitting that, NASCAR deserves a nod for understanding that it needs a strong playoff series devoid of any distractions.
The ambulance issue was bad, and could have been worse. Someone could have been seriously injured and Kenseth could have been eliminated from the playoffs because his car was crashed. NASCAR would have had a ton of explaining to do.
For now, the explanation is that the ambulance driver ignored directives to stop and ultimately picked the entrance to pit road.
O'Donnell understood the ramifications.
"We don't want to be a part of the story," he said Monday. "We've got a great group of drivers out there battling hard and got a great group in the playoffs, and we want it to be about those guys."
So a conversation was also had with Truex, who had his night ruined when Derrike Cope hit the wall with three laps remaining. The win was in Truex's reach - it would have been a series-high fifth this year and given him additional bonus points for the playoffs - but he instead wrecked in overtime.
"He's obviously upset, and I think that's fair," O'Donnell said of Truex.
Indeed, Cope is a backmarker, was a lot of laps down from the leader and should have just gotten out of the way. Instead, the caution he caused ruined Truex's night.
It was Dale Earnhardt Jr. who noted on Twitter that an iffy caution in the closing laps of last year's finale cost Carl Edwards the championship, and Edwards retired from NASCAR several weeks later. Drivers and fans are equally tired of cautions that maybe don't really warrant a yellow flag, and that was likely the root of Truex's ire Saturday night.
O'Donnell has promised NASCAR will be better going forward, and that's all anyone can ask for at the start of these playoffs.
More AP Auto Racing: http://racing.ap.org/
Updated September 11, 2017