2017-11-27 NASCAR crew chief Matt McCall won a Late Model race on Sunday in controversial fashion.
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series crew chief Matt McCall returned to his short track roots over the weekend and won a premiere Late Model Stock Car event in North Carolina, but not without a hint of controversy.
McCall took his No. 51 to victory lane in the Thanksgiving Classic at Southern National Motorsports Park, but it took three hours after the checkered flag to confirm his achievement.
The lead engineer for Jamie McMurray was flagged the winner after 200 laps, but it was discovered after the race that his transponder was mounted in an unapproved area of his car. That essentially gave him an unfair advantage during a decisive juncture of the event.
McCall was given his final lead of the night over regional racer Justin Johnson for the final time during a caution with 25 laps to go when it was deemed that he was the leader the most recent time across the start-finish line before the yellow flag waved.
Visually, the cars appeared to be side by side when they crossed the line, but Johnson swore both during and after the race that McCall never passed him.
"We were clearly in front at the time of the caution, and they gave it to Matt," Johnson said. "I led the last two laps and he never had the lead. This track is known for bad calls like that."
As it turns out, McCall was only shown as the leader ahead of Johnson due to the illegal placement of his transponder. NASCAR Late Model Stock rules require transponders to be mounted 14.2 inches from the leading edge on the right rear frame.
McCall and car owner Wendell Davis had their transponder placed on the front kick of his machine.
So essentially, McCall was only placed ahead of Johnson due to the advantage he gained by having his transponder illegally placed closer to the front of his Late Model. This allowed him to technically cross the line first, even if they crossed at precisely the same time.
This was even more advantageous for McCall because it gave him lane selection for the final restart. He selected the preferred bottom groove and never looked back.
"I thought I was in the lead, but every time I contested, they put us behind," McCall said. "I wanted to see if they would give us the lead by getting in the right spot. It was always weirdbecause they would go back to the previous lap, and there aren’t any loops here. ... I’m sure the (Johnson) thinks differently about it."
Johnson immediately pleaded his case to track owner Michael Diaz during post-race festivities on the front stretch, maintaining that he was never passed by McCall.
During the post-race technical inspection, track officials discovered the unjust placement of the transponder and deliberated on the most appropriate course of action.
In short-track racing, any infraction almost certainly results in a complete disqualification. The process and debate lasted over two hours, with track officials sporadically meeting with both drivers. Members of the media were even tossed from the infield for attempting to report on the chaotic scene.
Nearly three hours after the conclusion of the race, Matt McCall was officially declared the winner of the Thanksgiving Classic.
Track owner Diaz eventually returned to the trackside press box and was asked for a statement. Instead, he provided a lengthy explanation of what he deemed a no-win scenario.
"This is exactly what’s wrong with racing," Diaz said. "We have a rule book, and I understand that. It’s nothing more than me trying to keep my integrity as a track owner. (The transponder) wasn’t discovered when it needed to be. Based off what was happening, and based off my tech and everything that was explained to me, the decision was made to leave it the way that it stood…
"That was a transponder that I don’t think won the race. So some people want me to go by the rule bookbecause that’s what we all fight for. But as much as some people want me to go by the rule book, I do not think the transponder position is what lost Justin Johnson the race."
So the decision was made to uphold the on-track decision and award McCall with the trophy and the $20,000 check that came with it. A judgment call was made that, even though McCall was in violation of the rules, that violation did not win him the race.
"Here’s a race that clearly (McCall) dominated the last 20 laps of the race," Diaz said. "If at any point Justin had the car to beat him, he would have. We wanted to let what happened on the track stand."
Before serving as a crew chief at the highest level of NASCAR, McCall was a full-time short-track driver and former Ford Performance development driver. He was a two-time champion of the now-defunct UARA-STARS touring division.
It’s something he tries to do at least once a season when his NASCAR duties allow him to build and drive a Late Model.
"Once a short tracker, always a short tracker," McCall said.
The way he won was the result of one of the most stereotypical short track affairs too.
By Matt Weaver
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