Ambulance on pit road nearly ruins NASCAR's race
By JENNA FRYER
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) It was hardly NASCAR's finest moment when an ambulance clogged the entrance to Richmond's pit road in a freak incident that could have ruined the regular-season finale.
A caution in Saturday night's race - the one that finalizes the field for the playoffs - sent cars to pit road for a routine stop. But for reasons NASCAR does not yet know, an ambulance had parked itself along the route and immediately bottlenecked the traffic.
NASCAR got lucky that no one was injured as cars frantically darted around the ambulance. Some couldn't slow in time and drivers began running into each other. Matt Kenseth got the worst of it - his hood was crumpled and his night was instantly over.
Had that incident cost Kenseth a spot in the playoffs, NASCAR would have had a huge mess to clean up before the playoffs begin this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway. Kenseth was not locked into the 16-driver field, and a first-time winner on the season would have bumped him out of the playoffs.
Although Kenseth remained calm when his fate was taken out of his hands, regular-season champion Martin Truex Jr. was furious.
"Whoever hits the button to open pit road needs to pay attention to what's going on on the racetrack," Truex said. "Somebody obviously wasn't paying attention or wasn't doing their job probably, and in my opinion at this level, it's inexcusable."
It was a bad look for NASCAR in a very big race, and NASCAR knows it has to clean that up before its showcase playoffs begin Sunday.
NASCAR senior vice president Scott Miller said the ambulance driver did not follow the directive to stop before pit road, while noting the screw-up is "not like this is a common occurrence for us. It was a very strange thing."
Still, Miller agreed with Truex that pit road should have been closed the moment the ambulance was spotted.
"Those calls are very dynamic. They happen very, very quickly," he said. "It's the race director in charge of pit road open and closed. The track services and safety crew is in charge of the other. We didn't sync up tonight. We will make sure we don't let that happen again."
Other things of note from the regular-season finale:
UNHAPPY TRUEX: Truex actually clinched the regular-season title a week ago at Darlington and this new reward came with a trophy presentation to match the bonus points Truex takes into the playoffs. NASCAR decided to wait until Saturday night to officially give Truex and his team the trophy, and the timing was less than ideal.
For the second week in a row, a race Truex could have won ended in a crash. He was less than thrilled as he accepted his trophy.
Truex had the Richmond win in hand when Derrike Cope brought out the caution and sent the race to overtime. He was beat off pit road by Kyle Larson, beat on the restart, and then crashed racing Denny Hamlin for position.
His ire was with Cope and a "caution for a guy that shouldn't even be out there is kind of ridiculous."
It hardly made for the happy moment NASCAR had been hoping to create.
LOOK OUT FOR LARSON: There's no doubt that the late Cope caution helped Larson snatch the win away from Truex and tie him with four victories this season, most in the Cup Series.
But it's important to note that Larson did it on a short track. In his four previous Cup victories, all had come on 2-mile tracks and he'd yet to prove he could win on a different layout. So Saturday night's victory crossed a new track off Larson's list and proved he's probably Truex's toughest challenger for the title.
"To get a win right before the playoffs start, I really hope it helps the momentum and the confidence," Larson said.
END FOR EARNHARDT: Dale Earnhardt Jr. was a longshot to make the playoffs, so no one should have been surprised when he was eliminated. It means NASCAR's most popular driver will end his career at the end of the season without a Cup title to his name.
He was upbeat after and isn't ruling out getting a win before this season is over.
"Apologize to our fans we're even in this situation," he said. "We believe in ourselves, and we should have been locked in before we got here. But wasn't a great season, performance-wise, but we got 10 to go. So we'll see if we can get a few more good runs. Maybe a win, you never know. Never know, you just got to keep going. Talladega is the racetrack that anybody can win at."
Updated September 10, 2017