When NASCAR visits its two gargantuan ovals formerly known as “restrictor-plate tracks,” Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, a few common themes emerge each time: racing in large packs, wrecking in large packs, manufacturer alliances in the draft, and out-of-bounds rules.
“Huh?” you might wonder at that last bit. “Isn’t out of bounds for, like, football or basketball?” It’s a lot easier of a call in those sports, that’s for sure.
Out of bounds, or the “yellow line” rule in NASCAR, was a factor once again in the finishes of both the NASCAR Truck Series and Cup Series races at Talladega over the weekend—one more so than the other, though.
Johnny Sauter, recently eliminated from the series’ playoffs after a spec-engine failure, crossed the line first in the Truck Series race but later had the win taken away when officials deemed him to have forced another truck below the yellow line. Sauter is in the turquoise truck in the video above, and his penalty gave first-time Truck Series winner Spencer Boyd, in the white, the trophy.
Then came the Cup Series race, which began Sunday and finished Monday due to weather. Ryan Blaney finished first and was later declared the official winner, despite dipping below the yellow line for a short period of time. Officials deemed he’d been forced below for that split second by runner-up finisher Ryan Newman, but no one was penalized.
Of the determination, NASCAR’s senior vice president of competition, Scott Miller, said on Sirius XM NASCAR that the sanctioning body “reserve[s] the right to call a car that forces another down below the yellow line.” That was about all he did say.
“We can kind of use our judgement, assess the situation,” Miller said. “No two ones of those situations are the same, so there’s some subjectivity in it, which isn’t the greatest thing for us, but I think that we are very happy with the calls that we made.”
Blaney is the white car on the bottom in the below gif, and the full video of the finish is here.
NASCAR instituted the yellow-line rule in 2001, and the sanctioning body warns drivers each time they visit Daytona or Talladega, as quoted by the Associated Press: “Do not go below the yellow line. If in NASCAR’s judgment you go below the yellow line to improve your position, you will be black-flagged.”
But the rulings aren’t as clean and tidy as that command is. Unlike other sports, where going out of bounds is just going out of bounds, NASCAR has to take into account all of the factors around the yellow line: Did someone push the driver who went under it out? Did a driver push someone else out, thus needing to be punished for it? Was someone pushed out by sheer coincidence, not on purpose? What was the intention?
It gets muddy, fast.
But the rule’s origins came with the intention to improve safety, as shown in this Twitter thread with incidents before and after its introduction. Former driver Jeff Gordon shared the thread last year advocating for the line, saying, “In case anyone was wondering what happens when you don’t have a yellow line rule at Daytona/Talladega, here you go.”
When asked by Jalopnik for the specific safety reasons behind the rule and why NASCAR is adamant upon keeping it in place, a NASCAR representative sent an audio recording of Miller discussing it.
“If we didn’t have the yellow line rule, there’s no telling what might ensue with all the skid paths and everything leading into the back straight being so wide,” Miller said in the recording. “We would find guys getting to the other end and having no place to go but the apron. So, we have to enforce the yellow line rule.
“I mean, the yellow line rule is not something that we enjoy, by any stretch of the imagination. But we have to have it. If we didn’t, there would be even more mayhem, more than likely.”
We responded to say that Miller’s quote was already going into this story and asked if NASCAR could give more specifics and examples of what might happen without the rule—since “mayhem” is kind of the norm at Talladega anyway—on Tuesday afternoon, but did not hear back before this published.
Safety intentions aside, the rule has also created a whole lot of controversy over the years since it became a thing, from penalty rulings to the argument that it can actually create danger on track due to drivers blocking while others try to keep above the out-of-bounds marker. Here are just a few examples.
In 2011, via an ESPN story, drivers Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers wanted the rule gone while heading to the checkered flag. From the story:
“You don’t want a controversial finish in these deals,” said Kyle Busch, Hamlin’s teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing. “That’s not what our sport is all about. You don’t want NASCAR deciding the winner.
“It would be nice if we could at least race to the checkered. But I’m trying to figure out what’s wrong with not having a yellow line. As it is now, if a guy blocks you [on the line] all the way to the grass, you can wreck bigger or wreck more.”
In the same story, former driver Rusty Wallace disagreed:
“I lived through that whole turmoil,” Wallace said. “Everybody got their tails busted by being upside down and crashing.”
That still happens with drivers using the line to block.
“Maybe so, but you’ve gotta have a line,” Wallace said. “There are far less problems with the line than we had without it. Guys were wrecking in the middle of the backstretch 30 feet below the line.”
The yellow line seems to be a major topic of discussion each time NASCAR visits Daytona or Talladega, like it was this past weekend, specifically with Sauter.
Both calls this time around seemed like the right ones for the situations within the context of the rule, but, like racing rulings from Formula One stewards, both once again showed the inherent weaknesses of rules in motorsport that warrant judgement calls. NASCAR generally polices the more clear-cut stuff and leaves the actual racing alone, but the yellow-line rule is one of the exceptions to that.
While it wasn’t so much the calls that were controversial this time, in Sauter’s case, how the call happened was a doozy. The call, even if it was the right one, was a mess to watch play out: Sauter won, tweets from reporters at the track said NASCAR had investigated and deemed him to be the winner, and then, a few minutes later, it was reported that NASCAR had reversed its decision.
Here’s an example from Motorsport.com’s Nick DeGroot on Saturday. It was four minutes between the original tweet about NASCAR reviewing and deeming Sauter the winner, and the update that it had been overturned. You probably could’ve just waited the extra few minutes on that one, NASCAR.
Bu no matter what the calls are or how they go down at each visit to Daytona or Talladega, few ever seem to agree on the rulings that the yellow-line boundary creates or on its very existence in the first place. There are plenty of arguments for and against the rule, but NASCAR believes that keeping it is the best way.
And, if NASCAR believes it, it shall be—within NASCAR’s scope, at least.