A thrilling NASCAR race on the Indianapolis road course was overshadowed by the kerbs destroying multiple cars, farcical attempts to remove oil and a contentious penalty. But what happened at Indy to make overtime last more than an hour?
The wrong headlines
Before the race became a circus act in the final handful of laps, NASCAR Cup’s first ever race on the IMS road course was a success.
The field was bunched up throughout, creating some thrilling racing, especially between Hendrick teammates Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson.
At the end of stage two, Larson brilliantly set Elliott up coming into the final chicane, powering past the #9 on to the pit-straight.
It was exactly the type of racing that justified the switch from the oval to the road course for the first time.
But good racing and battles like that were overshadowed by events at the end of the race.
Turns 5/6 on the Indy road course are a fast left/right combination leading on to the back straight.
Such is the speed, drivers aim to straight it as much as possible to lose as little time as possible.
The entry to the corner was fine, but the blue-and-white kerb at Turn 6 had taken a battering all weekend.
Not only were Cup cars riding the kerb, so were those from XFinity and the IndyCar Series as well.
That’s a lot of cars hitting the same point for three days.
The first inkling of trouble came early in stage three.
Aric Almirola spun after contact and his car’s splitter got stuck underneath the kerb itself.
It was quickly removed under caution with the race then settling down, with Larson and Denny Hamlin swapping the lead.
Debris at Turn 6 with eight laps of the scheduled 82 to run bunched the field up again, and so it began.
Kerb destroys multiple cars
Restarting with five laps to run, Hamlin led from the racy Chase Briscoe, Larson, William Byron and Kyle Busch.
The leading trio made it through safely but, when Byron clouted the kerb, it exploded.
It spat him and Busch into symmetrical spins, while Joey Logano was speared head-first into a tyre barrier.
In the melee, another six cars were caught out, including Daniel Suarez. This unsurprisingly brought out the red flags.
While track officials, including IMS president Doug Boles, quickly removed the offending piece of track furniture, it shouldn’t have happened.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway is one of the finest motorsport facilities on the planet.
It has resources and capabilities most other circuits can only dream of.
It’s unacceptable pieces of kerb should come up just because a few cars ran over it.
After the race, Boles said the affected kerbing “was the same style of kerbing” since the road course was improved in 2014.
“We’ve not really ever had an issue with those kerbs. We look at it between every session.
“There was no indication today there was anything wrong with that kerb.”
Be that as it may, problems don’t tend to be apparent until they slap you across the face.
Fortunately all drivers avoided serious injury but, while this first incident was on IMS, what came next certainly wasn’t.
NASCAR pushes the limit
It was quite clear after the first incident that track conditions had become unsafe.
The risk to drivers, marshals and fans at that area of track had increased significantly.
At that point, NASCAR officials should have called off the race, awarding Hamlin the win. Simple as that.
Of course, this would have meant the great crescendo of a motor race would have been lost.
But safety of all involved overrides anything.
Instead, to get things going again, track conditions were arguably made even worse.
Removal of the offending kerb opened up the corner for the field, but a sausage kerb was left in situ.
In place to stop drivers cutting the corner, hitting it would launch a car – as was seen in the XFinity race on Saturday.
Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell clouted this obstacle and, despite a valiant effort, was quickly collected by those behind.
A further six drivers were caught up in it, the cars of Austin Dillon, Tyler Reddick and McDowell coming off particularly badly.
This was avoidable. It was needless. It was an unjustifiable risk.
Good intentions – bad implementation
Yes, it is commendable that NASCAR wanted to see the race out to a finish.
That should always be what a series tries to do.
But, after the first incident, it was time to wrap things up and go to Michigan.
Put simply, it was amateur hour.
This was reinforced by the comical attempts to put down speedy dry cement between the two kerb incidents.
A backmarker car was leaking oil throughout the lap, with officials quickly putting the agent down to soak it up.
In his own unique style, Kyle Busch told his team the track officials should stop – prefixing that with the f-bomb.
It summed up the state of things.
The drivers aren’t to blame. Put them on a race track and they will try to gain an advantage over the guy they’re side-by-side with.
But it should never have got to the stage where a second multi-car pile-up was allowed to happen.
The rookie pushes the limit
It was now perfectly clear the race would be seen out to a finish, come what may.
Another quick red flag followed so the carbon confetti could be removed after the McDowell-triggered incident.
When things were finally deemed acceptable to go racing again, the first flashpoint came at Turn 1.
On the long run down to Turn 1 of the IMS road course, slipstreaming the car ahead is a perfect opportunity to make up places.
Hamlin restarted in the lead, with Briscoe on the outside.
Funneling into the tight Turn 1, Briscoe was guided out wide by Hamlin, who retained the lead.
After a brief grass-cutting exercise, Briscoe rejoined, but having cut the track, was handed a penalty by NASCAR.
Everyone seemed to know this, except Briscoe.
As the field snaked out of the infield and back on to the oval, Briscoe nudged Hamlin out of the way, sending the #11 off.
Briscoe was subsequently parked by NASCAR, handing the affable AJ Allmendinger an emotional win for Kaulig Racing.
Fortunately for Hamlin, Allmendinger isn’t a full-time driver this year, and ineligible for the playoffs.
So despite losing an almost certain win, Hamlin secured his playoff berth by virtue of amassing enough points.
What are they saying?
“I agree it is not on purpose,” said Hamlin.
“To me, it is obvious that if you cut the race track and end up in the lead, you are going to get a penalty.
“Lack of awareness. I don’t think he did it malicious. I have raced with him for a year now, and he’s not that kind of person. Bad judgement.”
For his part, Briscoe denied any retaliatory intent in spinning Hamlin for being pushed wide at Turn 1.
“I didn’t even realise I had a penalty until I got to Turn 10.
“Denny has been in that situation, going for your first win.
“I’m sorry that it ruined his day. That was never my intention.
“I get why he is upset, I would have been too.
“If I’d have known I had a penalty, I’d never have tried to pass him there.
“It would not have meant anything. As far as I knew, at that time, I was going for the win.
“That’s what I am paid to do and that’s what I was trying to do.”
In the absence of evidence to the contray, Briscoe must be taken at face value. He hasn’t shown bad intentions throughout his Cup career so far.
The only thing lacking was perhaps situational awareness. He should have known he had a penalty for cutting the track.
It would have taken a remarkable break with precedent for NASCAR not to issue a penalty.
What happens now?
A number of teams will be throwing their cars in the bin.
It proved to be an expensive day.
But before NASCAR descended into a largely avoidable farce of its own making, things went well.
Switching from the oval to the road course proved unpopular with many drivers, lamenting the loss of a ‘crown jewel’ event in the Brickyard 400.
NASCAR did go a bit overkill with adding new road courses for the 2021 season.
Seven in total was perhaps a tad too many, but after years of copy-cat intermediate 1.5-mile ovals plonked around the country, it has been a welcome change.
For a first act, NASCAR on the IMS road course had promise.
Lessons will be learned on how to improve the track and series itself. The racing proved to be intense, fierce, but largely fair.
Should the race return next year, there will be solid foundations on which to build a platform.
But IMS and NASCAR can only hope there’s no repeat of the vicious sting we saw on Sunday afternoon.