Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway had one of the strangest endings of any NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race in recent memory, and the culprit, apparently, was simple human error.
Carl Edwards had a comfortable lead with fewer than three laps to go when the caution lights came on around the 0.533-mile track, for reasons that no one knew at first. As NASCAR tried to figure out what happened, the field circulated under caution, only to have rain start falling heavily.
NASCAR officially ended the race after 503 laps, with Edwards declared the winner over his Roush Fenway Racing teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Aric Almirola and Tony Stewart.
The phantom yellow had no impact on the ultimate outcome of the race, but it was an embarrassing gaffe, as NASCAR’s vice president of competition and racing development Robin Pemberton explained afterward.
"What had happened in the closing laps of the race, it appears that in the flag stand one of the flag people had leaned on the switch that is the manual override for the caution lights, and so that happened," said Pemberton. "When the flag stand realized that the caution lights were illuminated, the flag man threw the (caution) flag, and then after that happened we froze the field from the tower.
"It appears that in, not all, but most of the flag stands have a manual override for the caution lights, and due to the weather and due to other things, there’s an area that it couldn’t have been — it wasn’t secured properly, and the flag person leaned against the switch and turned the caution lights on," said Pemberton. "We tried to turn them off, and we realized that the override switch was on and they were hung on caution. It was a stupid error."
Jack Roush, the winning car owner, said he was concerned when saw the yellow that there would be a green-white-checkered finish, which had a high potential for a last-lap crash.
"I had a picture in my mind’s eye of three or four of those Fords winding up in a hairball and letting one of the Toyotas or Chevrolets behind come through for the win, so I had that bit of horror, but that was just an old man’s anxiety," said Roush.
Pemberton said NASCAR will continue to examine what happened.
"We learn a lot of lessons, and when we learn a lesson like this we’ll go in and further investigate some things," he said. "As you know, all the electronics that we’ve had and have installed in the trailers for freeze the field and all these other things, there’s still — you still have to integrate into the track facilities, so there’s probably some things that we needed to do to better secure that area where the manual override is on the lights."
Race-winner Edwards said he was happy that Pemberton and NASCAR provided an explanation of the gaffe.
"As a sport, they make a lot of tough calls," Edwards said of NASCAR. "We all do a lot of things where there is a lot of room for mistakes, so the outcome worked out for me but even if it hadn’t, I’m glad to be part of something where they say, ‘Hey, we just screwed up.’"