Rear View Mirror: Race stewards face layers of scrutiny

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For the second consecutive weekend, the action on track put the spotlight on how tough it is to work in INDYCAR race control.

Like any other sport, be it the referees in football or hockey, or the umpires in baseball, INDYCAR’s trio of stewards can count on someone, somewhere to second guess every call they make. Simply put, it's a thankless job.

Sunday afternoon's action in the late going of the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsport Park thrust a difficult decision under the stewards' noses when leader Simon Pagenaud and challenger Graham Rahal touched with nine laps to go.

And no matter what they did, there's no doubt that it wouldn't be the right decision for some, depending on their allegiance or point of view.

CLICK HERE: Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama race highlights

For example, there was the position of the No 22 PPG Automotive Refinish Team Penske Chevrolet car.

“That was a late pass,” Pagenaud said after the race. “It’s not a corner where he can pass, but anyway I won the race so I won't say anything. It made me really upset. I said I was going to pass him back and that’s what we did.”

Unsurprisingly, the opposite opinion emerged from the No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda.

“It's a nice block, you can see he (Pagenaud) just completely turns in,” Rahal said watching the replay after the race.

“To me, it's a racing incident and he obviously came right back on right behind us. You know, if he is going to drive like that, it’s fine. I mean, I gave him room on the outside there and I could have pushed him off.”

To illustrate how tough varied opinions can be, former racer turned NBCSN commentator Paul Tracy, who often dug into his pockets to pay fines for criticizing the officiating during his racing career, came out in support of the stewards' decision to take no action.

“It looked to me from the on-board (camera) that Pagenaud blocked him, moved over and then he moved over again,” Tracy said from the broadcast booth.

“Graham got a run, he went to the inside and he (Pagenaud) moved over on him. I think it's a racing incident.”

Then again, when race control took no action on Pagenaud-Rahal contact, there's no doubt that Charlie Kimball fans screamed at their TVs. The No. 83 Tresiba Chip Ganassi Racing Chevy driver was told to give a position back for blocking in a similar incident with the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda of James Hinchcliffe on Lap 9.

While there's always someone ready to rake the stewards over the coals, few notice that race control ensured that drivers battled to the last corner in Birmingham by not throwing a full-course caution for debris with five laps to go after Rahal lost his front wing in contact with Jack Hawksworth's No. 41 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Honda. The decision to let them race made for a nail-biting finish that kept fans on the edge of their seats to the checkered flag.

In addition, a yellow flag would have hugely penalized Rahal, who was minus most of his front wing and certainly would have been eaten alive by the field had there been a full-course caution and restart. And that assumes there would have been time to clean it up and get the race going again.

A week ago in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, Pagenaud was also at the center of controversy when he crossed the line exiting the pit lane battling with Scott Dixon (No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevy) for the lead late in the race. Howls ensued when race control issued a warning to Pagenaud instead of a more weighty sanction, such as a pit drive-through penalty.

At the time, nobody outside race control noticed that Pagenaud wasn't the only driver to cross that same line during the race and that the stewards hadn't given them penalties either. Again, a harsh reaction from race control in Long Beach would have robbed fans of an exciting run to the checkers.

Hours later, those on social media made it apparent that the pit exit line was not respected by several drivers during the race and punishing Pagenaud may have been unfairly applying the rule. So, in the end, it looks like the stewards' call was a good one.

For his part, Dixon said you just have to get on with it after a decision that a driver might not like.

“Last week was last week,” he said in Alabama. “We just want to understand the rules that we are racing under. That's the main thing. If there are no rules, that's fine, but if there are, they need to be enforced.”

The bottom line is that good decisions from stewards rarely get praised, because the race control fishbowl makes it easier to find fault elsewhere and criticize.

In the end, fans sometimes need to remember that being a steward is one of the hardest jobs around and the guys who put themselves in the crosshairs because they love the sport deserve to be cut some slack now and then. Or maybe even more often than that.


From the fans