ROCKINGHAM, N.C. - The only thing that seemed certain about the final five laps of Sunday's Subway 400 at the North Carolina Speedway was that Matt Kenseth had the best car.
Nothing else, however, made much sense.
Kenseth won the race, but not before NASCAR reversed its unwritten policy on red flags in the final 10 laps.
Unlike a week ago, when the Daytona 500 was stopped with six laps to go to clean up the track, Kenseth followed the pace car during the final five laps under caution to break a 59-race winless streak.
Even when NASCAR president Mike Helton was asked about the sanctioning body's policy to stop some races and not stop others, he didn't know exactly how many laps were remaining when the final caution flag waved for oil and water in the third and fourth turns.
He said his officials decided not to stop the race - a policy that's been used off and on in the past to assure a green-flag finish - because there were four laps to go when the caution started. He said by the time Kenseth fell in line behind the pace car, there were only three to go, and that didn't allow enough time to make pit stops and start the race.
NASCAR's official post-race report, however, showed the caution came out with five laps remaining.
"In essence, there wasn't enough time to red flag the race and finish under green," Helton said. "We're not going to throw a caution, then a red flag and not give them the opportunity to stop on pit road."
In reality, there was time. If the race was stopped during the cleanup with three to go, they could have re-started under caution with three to go and gone green with two to go.
"We'd all like a firm deal, five to go or whatever," said Sterling Marlin, who was in the middle of the Daytona red-flag controversy a week earlier and was second to Kenseth on Sunday. "Whoever runs the show up there sometimes decides to do it and sometimes they don't. It depends on who's leading the race. We need to know what we're going to do."
Third-place Bobby Labonte agreed.
"One or the other (red-flag the race or not in the final 10 laps) would be fine, but be consistent," he said. "If it was just a consistent deal it would be better - whichever way it is it would be better. It doesn't matter if it's right or wrong; just make a decision."
There are no rules written to spell out when a race would be red-flagged in the final 10 laps, and Helton said there wouldn't be any.
"Every situation is different," he said. "It's not in our best interest to do it if we have the time."
A week ago, Marlin was the leader when the red flag waved with six to go. However, he was penalized when he climbed from his car and pulled the fender away from his right-front tire. That allowed second-place Ward Burton to automatically assume the lead on the re-start, and from there he led the final five laps to win the Daytona 500.
"If it had ended like this last week, we would have won the race," Marlin said. "But that's racing."
Unlike the way Burton inherited the lead at Daytona, other drivers were satisfied Kenseth was most deserving of the victory. He led four times for 152 laps, including a daring move to the bottom groove in the third and fourth turns to get past Marlin and Labonte as they slipped in the oil and water left by Ken Schrader's blown engine.
The final caution, however, was for a chunk of tire thrown from Robby Gordon's car.
"I don't know what happened to the 40 (Marlin) and the 18 (Labonte)," Kenseth said. "I don't know if they thought the caution was coming out or if they got into some oil or what. They just slowed down and I kept it wide open."
Kenseth averaged 115.478 mph. He also won $157,400.
"Matt ran a good race all day and he deserved to win," Marlin said.
Like everyone else, Kenseth wondered if NASCAR was going to display the red flag with five laps remaining.
"I knew there was five to go when I crossed the line," Kenseth said. "I remember last year they had one of those red-flag deals with six laps to go and it caused a lot of chaos. If I had to be somewhere, regardless of the red flag or not, I wanted to be out front. That's where my car was best."
Marlin and Labonte couldn't do anything but follow Kenseth across the finish line as the yellow and checkered flag waved simultaneously. Tony Stewart was fourth, followed by Ricky Craven in fifth, Jeff Burton in sixth, Jeff Gordon in seventh, Rusty Wallace in eighth, Bobby Hamilton in ninth and Kenny Wallace in 10th.
There were 10 cautions, the most serious coming after an eight-car crash in the third turn. Jeff Gordon bumped Casey Atwood and that triggered a chain reaction that included Kyle Petty, Schrader, Buckshot Jones, Jeremy Mayfield, Michael Waltrip and Jeff Burton. None of the drivers were hurt.
A tire carrier for Jimmie Johnson's team, David Bryant, suffered a broken right leg after being struck by Mark Martin during the first pit stop.
The series shifts to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway next Sunday for the UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400.
Reach Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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