COMMENTARY: The Witless Pursuit Of Consistency

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Brad Keselowski was black-flagged by NASCAR on Lap 243 of Sunday’s Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, after the driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford jumped a restart. It was exactly what a vocal group of drivers, team owners, media members and fans have been demanding for weeks, yet somehow, no one seems happy with the decision.

Keselowski jumped ahead of race leader Greg Biffle as their cars entered NASCAR’s designated restart zone, and was still ahead when they left the zone and received the green flag. Going strictly by the rule book, Keselowski was guilty of a violation, despite the fact that Biffle regained the lead as the pair raced through Turns One and Two. As the rules require, NASCAR ordered Keselowski to pit road for a pass-through penalty that mired him deep in the field, ending his hopes for Victory Lane and triggering a maelstrom of protest from many of the same people that demanded that exact response just a few days earlier.

One of those people was Keselowski’s car owner, Roger Penske, who blasted the sanctioning body for not penalizing Matt Kenseth three weeks ago at Richmond International Raceway, after Kenseth jumped Team Penske driver Joey Logano on the race’s final restart.

“The (official) must have closed the window and pulled the blind down,’’ said Penske at the time. “That’s how bad it was. They’ve got to come up with some way to say what’s right or what’s wrong. When you’re racing as tight as we are with everything that is on the line, you just can’t have that kind of officiating.”

Penske chastised NASCAR for “inconsistencies” in their restart officiating, and drivers like Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Logano and Kasey Kahne quickly joined the chorus of criticism. 

Media members and fans chimed in, as well, with NASCAR eventually buckling under the pressure and adding an unnecessary “restart camera” to their technological arsenal to keep an eagle-eye on restarts.  

After that, it was only a matter of time until someone fell victim to their competitive native and gassed it up a few feet too soon. Keselowski was that someone, and when NASCAR examined the fancy, high-definition data from that Lap 243 restart, they detected a small (but definite) violation. They then gave the critics what they wanted, assessing Roger Penske’s driver a major penalty for the most minor of violations.

Ain’t karma a bugger?

In recent weeks, Penske and company have preached “consistency at all costs,” ignoring the fact that officials have always been empowered (and expected) to make judgment calls during the course of a race.

In virtually every professional sport, officials are allowed to exercise discretion in their enforcement of the rules. In Major League Baseball, there are significant differences in the way individual umpires interpret the strike zone. NBA officials routinely overlook traveling and three-second violations, in the interest of keeping the game moving. National Football League officials could easily call multiple penalties on every play, if they chose to do so, while linesmen in the National Hockey League routinely “swallow the whistle” as time runs down, allowing the players to decide the outcome.

They understand what many in NASCAR have apparently forgotten; that fans pay their money to watch athletes, not umpires.

“It was very clear-cut, based on the video we had,” said Sprint Cup Series director Richard Buck Sunday. “By having (an official) on the ground directly across from the restart box, they can really get a good understanding and allow us to feel 100 percent that we (made) a very good decision.”

No doubt about it, NASCAR called it right Sunday. The rulebook forbids the second-place driver from accelerating first within the restart zone. Keselowski clearly did that Sunday, regardless of whether he actually completed a pass. And in a sport that no longer values common sense, the hammer had to fall, setting a precedent that will almost certainly plague the sport for years to come.

From now on, NASCAR must rule with the iron hand they displayed Sunday in the Granite State. They must go by the absolute letter of the law, treating a one-inch violation the same as a mile. The stage is set for the 2015 championship to be decided – not by the drivers – but by a sadly embattled man in an official’s uniform, forced to black-flag the leader at Homestead Miami Speedway for gassing it up three inches early in an attempt to secure the greatest prize our sport has to offer

No more common sense, enough of discretion. All we’ll have left is the empty ache created by the witless desire for consistency at all costs.

“We’re not out to get anybody,” said NASCAR’s Buck. “But we’re the keeper of the rules and the enforcer of the rules. All anybody asks for in this garage area is to be treated fairly, and we believe we did our job today.”

Be careful what you wish for, NASCAR fans. Because you just got it.