GIF: NASCAR (YouTube)

A last-lap caution during Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway prematurely, and unfortunately, ended a race that would’ve otherwise been pretty good. But while cameras were on a huge wreck on the backstretch, the reason for the caution, a piece of debris, was elsewhere.

It might not sound like much, but it was—and it shows some of the intricacies of making a last-lap caution call at a wreck-heavy track like Talladega.

The last-lap wreck wasn’t ideal, for a good finish or the drivers involved in it. It upped the likelihood of a caution as Kyle Larson’s car tumbled down the inside of the track, ending the race before there actually could be a race for the win. The caution came out, too, but not for the wreck.

It was, instead, for a stopped car and debris on the front straight—obstacles that weren’t on camera, but would be a problem for a field racing toward them. NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, Steve O’Donnell, said even without the massive crash, the caution still would have come out. He also explained the decision process and events leading up to the caution, via NASCAR.com:

“Our desire for the fans is to always, always finish under green,” O’Donnell said. “You want to let the race play out as much as we can, and that starts almost with (Erik Jones’) 20 car (spinning) going into (Turns) 3 and 4. Do you throw that caution or do you hold off and see if that car is able to roll off? Certainly, if he was stalled out on the apron, that caution comes out, but we saw that he was able to drive off. So, that’s kind of our philosophy in the closing laps.

“When it comes to the 17 hitting the wall and going down to the apron, then what we’re looking at is does he have the ability to fire the car back up and drive off or not and is there anything on the track? We’re going 200 miles per hour, so to quickly look at that takes a few seconds. By the time that happens, cars are out in 1 and 2 … his car doesn’t roll off so we throw the caution. That caution flag was almost the exact time when the (Larson) incident started unfolding on the backstretch as well. [...]”

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NASCAR has race-finishing procedures for cautions on or near the last lap, and they’re important at “plate” tracks like Talladega, where carnage at the end of a race is common due to the track’s nature of pack racing. The rules, basically, are that if drivers cross the start-finish line for the final lap, the next flag ends it, be it yellow, red, or checkered. If a caution comes out before, there’s overtime. Let’s save that discussion for another day.

There were a couple of incidents before the last lap that NASCAR decided not to throw cautions for, as O’Donnell mentioned, but the wreck came after the white flag—making the caution a harder call. The wreck was behind the field, out of collisions’ way at the 2.66-mile race track, but Larson was airborne, upping the likelihood that safety crews should get there sooner. (Larson was OK afterward.)

The debris, on the other hand, was in the path of the field, forcing the call.

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NASCAR.com didn’t quote O’Donnell as saying what officials would’ve done had there been no debris on the front straight during the wreck, but, if anything, the decision probably would’ve taken a few seconds longer. It also would’ve decided the outcome of the race—an orderly line taking the checkered flag at caution speeds, or a pack racing for the win at 200 mph.

There’s always the option to mandate that every race end under green and not have to decide between a good finish and deploying safety crews, but, of course, trying and trying again at tracks like this doesn’t always work so well either.

It’s one intricate decision versus another, really—one just has to be made a bit more quickly than the other.