Brad Keselowski won the Ford Ecoboost 300, but that win was overshadowed by a championship wrapped in controversy.
Austin Dillon struggled with handling problems most of the night. His team led by crew chief, Danny Stockman, made several of adjustments throughout the race and managed to help the car significantly.
As the race progressed, Dillon slowly and methodically worked his way toward the front. Even with the improvements, however, he was still a couple of points behind Sam Hornish Jr. who was running in the top-5 for most of the night.
Race strategy came into play as the eighth caution of the night came out on lap 155. The Stockman led team of Dillon, were watching Hornish to see if they would take tires or wait. Their plan was to copy whatever the No. 12 car did. Hornish’s team installed their last set of Goodyear sticker tires and Dillon’s team followed suit. Several other teams chose to save their final sets until later. This would be a key factor later in the race.
Regan Smith made contact and brought out the final caution on lap 184 when Regan Smith made contact with Jeremy Clements causing a multi-car crash on the frontstretch. The team who had saved their tires hit pit road to bolt their final sets on and make final adjustments. This set up a scenario where cars that were already as fast as Dillon, now had the extra benefit of fresh tires. Hornish looked to be in good shape as these cars would have had plenty of time to overtake Dillon and give Hornish the cushion he needed to clinch the title.
The controversy came when it became obvious that the cleanup on the frontstretch would take longer than expected. In a move that has been questioned by many, NASCAR chose not to throw red flag. The field was allowed to run under caution for twelve laps. The race was not restarted until lap 196. If the red had been thrown, the race could have been restarted with at least ten to go, giving the contenders much more time to race for the title.
Dillon talked about his race and his championship, “I was very close to wrecking that car trying to get more speed out of it, I hit the wall that one time and I told myself, I said if I go out there and the wall the next lap and take ourselves out of this championship, I’m giving it to him. I got to make it to the end and it worked out.”
When asked about seeing Hornish right in front of him on the restarts, Dillon replied, “Do everything I could do to put stress on him. Make sure that he knew I was there. The last one, I knew with five to go our car was good enough. If I could somehow get him off his rocker, get him frustrated somehow, it would work.”
A disappointed Hornish commented about the season and the night, “You can’t give away points throughout the year like we did at times – some was the driver’s fault and some was out of our control. We had it for most of the night and I knew that Austin was obviously trying to take care of the everything and make sure that he made it to the end, and then you had the late caution and a lot of guys had tires and came.”
When asked about all of the caution laps at the end of the race, Hornish replied, “What can I say? Any other time there probably would have been a caution. It’s just one of those things that it wasn’t meant to be tonight so we’ll just take what we learned and try to do the best with it for here on out.”
The decision to not throw the red flag completely altered the scenario for the race. If the race had restarted with ten to go, Hornish would have the upper hand. By waiting until four to go, Dillon did not have to fend off the challengers with new tires, making the path to the championship much easier.
Robin Pemberton was asked why the decision was made to not throw the red flag. Pemberton responded, “It really looked like it was going to be a typical clean-up, a typical wreck. You know, you had two cars that had a lot of damage and both of them dumped quite a bit of oil. There was no need to throw a red. We felt like we could get it in a normal lap segment of that. You know, unfortunately there was a lot of oil – it looked like it kept either seeping back up out of the race track or whatever from the car that was on the outside of the wall. And you know, we went one to go a handful of times trying to get the track ready.” When asked if there was a time constraint due to TV he replied, “No, there was nothing like that.” Unfortunately, Pemberton was not asked why they did not throw the red once it was realized the clean-up was not typical.
In this writer’s opinion, we have not been given a valid reason why twelve of the final sixteen laps of the final race of the season, with so much on the line from driver’s championship to owner’s championship to manufacturer’s championship, should have been ran under caution. This was a bad call all around, and there is no other way to say it.
There needs to be a much more clearly defined policy regarding this situation. The series can never plan for every variable, but it usually reacts very well when a scenario sheds light on a problem. This is one of those times. This championship will always have an asterisk beside of it in the minds of many. Hopefully, NASCAR will rectify the problem and prevent it from happening in the future.