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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup

Stolen Glory: Ill-timed Caution Flag Costs Truex Richmond Victory

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It’s hard to imagine a more awkward finish to a NASCAR race than what happened Saturday night at Richmond Raceway.

Martin Truex Jr. was cruising to an easy victory in the Federated Auto Parts 400, a victory that would have given him even more momentum than he already had as the Monster Energy  NASCAR Cup Series regular-season champion.

Then, with three laps to go, the unthinkable happened.

Derrike Cope, who was logging laps at the back of the field, lightly brushed  — lightly — the Turn 4 wall to bring out a caution on Lap 398 of the scheduled 400-lap race.

Let the record state a couple of facts:

When the yellow came out, Truex had a lead of about 4 seconds over the field.

Cope kept going after the contact with the wall, with only the slightest damage on his car. He went on to finish 36th, 16 laps down. For the year, Cope’s average finish is 34.9.

Once the yellow was out, the field all pitted for fresh tires, Kyle Larson won the race off pit road first and then the race itself, while shortly after the restart, Truex got wrecked by his quasi-teammate Denny Hamlin. Instead of winning his fifth race of the year, Truex finished 20th. He led 198 of 404 laps and walked away with nothing to show for it except a single point for winning Stage 2 of the race.

Afterwards, many people felt the caution should not have been thrown at all because Cope kept going and it didn’t appear that his car shed any shrapnel on the track.

And yet the caution for Cope altered the outcome of the race.

How absurd was that?

It would be like the New England Patriots beating the Dallas Cowboys by three touchdowns in the final minute, only to lose the game in the last seconds because of something stupid the Cleveland Browns did.

To add insult to injury, Truex, crew chief Cole Pearn and team owner Barney Visser had to appear in the post-race celebration to accept the trophy for winning the championship. Furious and uncomfortable, Truex looked like a man who just found out his ex-wife was sleeping with her Pilates instructor. Pearn, meanwhile, simply appeared stunned.

Understandable reactions, both. As were Truex’s post-race comments.

Tonight sucks, plain and simple, just the way it ended up,” said Truex. “You’re out there dominating like this, you know your car is not very good on restarts for a couple laps.  Caution for a guy that shouldn’t even be out there is kind of ridiculous.  I don’t know.  I don’t really know what to say about all that. It’s unfortunate the way the race ended. … I just think that’s ridiculous that a guy could cause a caution with one lap to go as bad as he’s running and just riding around there basically just making laps.  Yeah, it’s pretty dumb.”

The worst part of it?

The caution for Cope, as bad as it was, wasn’t the worst call of the night.

Or even the second worst call of the night.

The second worst came on Lap 88, when NASCAR threw a caution because Matt Kenseth locked up his brakes and gave off tire smoke. Didn’t hit anyone or anything, and didn’t spin. Officially on the race rundown, the cause of that yellow was listed as “smoke.”

But the worst gaffe came on Lap 258, after a caution for Danica Patrick’s spin.

As the lead-lap cars headed toward pit road, an ambulance stopped at the commitment line near the pit-road entrance, causing several cars to have an accordion-like collision trying to avoid hitting it. Matt Kenseth got the worst of it, his Toyota too damaged to be repaired under the 5-minute crash clock.

Luckily for Kenseth, there was no first-time winner of 2017 at Richmond, so he didn’t get knocked out of the playoffs.

“Not really sure why pit road was open with an ambulance parked there, but everybody stopped and I didn’t see it in time and ran into the car in front of me,” said Kenseth.

The biggest issue isn’t what happened in Richmond, though.

The biggest issue is what could happen in the playoffs.

Fans want to see races won and drivers advance through the playoffs because of fast cars, good driving and skillful pit work, not because the guy in 36th-place screws up with three laps to go.

Imagine if what happened at Richmond happens again at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 19, when the championship is decided.

One can only hope the final laps at Homestead come down to the best of the best racing their guts out for a title, instead of a backmarker doing something to alter the course of the championship and therefore of NASCAR history.

Tom Jensen

Tom Jensen is a veteran motorsports journalist. He spent 13 years with FOXSports.com, where he was Digital Content Manager. Previously, he was executive editor of NASCAR Scene and managing editor of National Speed Sport News. Jensen served as the president of the National Motorsports Press Association and is the group’s former Writer of the Year.