DARLINGTON, S.C. -- The moment NASCAR displayed the red flag with seven laps remaining in Sunday's Mountain Dew Southern 500, drivers expected a big crash at the finish. So did the nearly 75,000 fans at Darlington Raceway and a national television audience.
More importantly, so did NASCAR.
The sanctioning body's unwritten policy to stop the race in the final 10 laps for routine cleanup of a crash has been a recipe for disaster. It bunches up the field for a mad make that insane made-for-television dash to the checkered flag.
''I was stressed,'' race leader Ward Burton said of his feelings during the eight-minute, 21-second timeout. ''I was definitely nervous.''
By the time the race restarted, there were just four laps to go. But these weren't four ordinary laps. These were four laps at the traditionally wicked Darlington Raceway. Trouble wasn't a possibility. It was a manufactured certainty.
Burton was lucky. He had gentleman driver Bobby Labonte on his rear bumper for the restart. Labonte raced him cleanly, and that allowed Burton to pull away for the win.
Others weren't as lucky.
With three laps remaining, a pack of cars stormed into the first turn. At the same time, Dave Blaney's Dodge dive-bombed into the corner. He was so out of control, he used Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Chevrolet to cushion his collision with the outside wall. Cars veered left, right and into each other trying to miss the mayhem.
Cars driven by Bill Elliott, Sterling Marlin, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Bobby Hamilton, Ricky Rudd and Johnny Benson were involved. The crash happened on the third-to-last lap. NASCAR apparently decided that was enough, especially because rain was only a couple minutes away from the race track. Burton took the white and yellow flag simultaneously, which meant the checkered flag came at half speed under caution.
Earnhardt was livid after the race. He said NASCAR's habit of stopping the race in the final 10 laps to set up a wild finish challenges the integrity of the finish.
NASCAR has used the red flag in the final 10 laps a handful of times in the past three years.
If nothing else, the sanctioning body has been consistent.
Kevin Triplett, NASCAR's director of operations, said his organization uses the red flag to assure fans see a green flag finish. He also said they would continue the practice, although such a procedure isn't listed in the rulebook.
''That's an important decision these people are making,'' Earnhardt said. ''We ran 500 miles. I can see it if it was a 20- or 50- or 100-lap feature or something like that. But this was a 500-mile race.''
With a made-for-television finish.
REACH Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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