With all the Sprint Cup cars parked and the drivers told to stay in their seats, NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell got an emphatic text message from ailing driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. back in North Carolina.
The text read, "Let the drivers out! What are you guys doing? I hate being in the car!"
In his role as NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, O’Donnell has plenty of judgment calls each race. But seldom more than Monday’s Pennsylvania 400, which was ravaged by various weather events before finally being called with 22 laps remaining Monday afternoon.
O’Donnell left the drivers in their cars under red flag, betting on the unlikely possibility that fog would quickly lift and allow the race to go back to green flag. When it became apparent that wasn’t happening anytime soon, NASCAR told the drivers to get out of their cars and cool down. They never got back in their vehicles.
This was the second time in two months that a Pocono race was pushed back to Monday by weather. All the different conditions from Sunday to Monday – sometimes torrential rain, thick fog and approaching lightning – made for a challenging and disjointed event.
"We’ve never seen two races at the same track moved to an alternative day," O’Donnell said. "That’s unfortunate since we had great crowds both times. We had almost zero rain until this weekend. And then It just saturated the track."
So much so that Pocono Raceway was afflicted with what NASCAR calls "weepers" – water settling under the track and bubbling up through cracks. That’s very problematic as far as making tracks drivable, so Pocono created small gouges in the track overnight Sunday to help with evaporation.
Considering constant morning mist in Long Pond Monday morning, it was a pleasant surprise NASCAR had the track ready shortly after noon. The race got off with the hope it would at least reach its mid-point – 81 laps – so that it could be declared official.
The fog, which engulfed half the surface around 3 p.m., first brought out a caution, then the red flag.
"What we worked through was really unprecedented with the fog rolling in. We waited to see whether the fog would flow through. That’s why we kept cars out initially," O’Donnell said.
The fog kept both NASCAR’s control tower and each team’s spotters from viewing the whole track and that created safety concerns that had to bring out the yellow flag.
"As far as the red flag, we never lost the track" to water, O’Donnell said. "Since we hadn’t lost the track, we wanted to wait. Unfortunately, we had a lightning warning and had to clear the stands."
O’Donnell said the fog eventually would have ended the race on its own, because Pocono doesn’t have lights.
"I’ve never seen anywhere where we had to throw the caution because we physically couldn’t see from the tower or the spotters," O’Donnell said. "Usually it’s the rain – that you lost the track and it would be three hours to dry. But the track was dry."
Bonnell: 704-358-5129: @rick_bonnell