Matt McCall won the Thanksgiving Classic in his return to Late Model Stock racing but it wasn’t without controversy.
He was flagged the winner after 200 laps, but it was discovered afterwards that his transponder was mounted incorrectly, giving him an unfair advantage during a decisive juncture of the event. McCall was given the lead over Justin Johnson for the final time during a caution with 25 laps to go when it was deemed he was leading the last time across the start-finish line before the yellow flag waved.
Visually, the cars appeared side-by-side, but Johnson passionately swore 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 an illegal placement of his transponder. McCall, who is the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series crew chief for Jamie McMurray, had his transponder placed on the front kick of his Late Model Stock.
NASCAR Late Model Stock rules state that transponders are supposed to be located 14.2 inches from the leading edge on the right rear frame.
So essentially, McCall was only placed at the front of the field due to the advantage gained from having his transponder illegally placed closer to the front of his Late Model. This was notable, because it allowed McCall to take the preferred bottom line on the restart.
“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 weird, because they would go back to the previous lap, and there aren’t any loops here…. I’m sure the No. 44 thinks differently about it.”
Johnson was stuck behind McCall for the Lap 180 restart and never caught back up.
At this point, McCall pulled away over the final 20 laps and was flagged as the winner. Johnson climbed out of his car and immediately pleaded his case to track owner Michael Diaz, insisting that he was never passed by McCall.
Justin Johnson and owner promoter Mike Diaz discussing the finish, which Johnson contests: pic.twitter.com/6hptgvPoV7
— Short Track Scene (@ST_Scene) November 26, 2017
It was ultimately in teardown that Southern National Motorsport Park technical officials noticed what provided McCall an advantage – the illegally placed transponder.
The technical inspection process lasted over two hours, with track officials meeting with both drivers. Attending media was even tossed from the infield back to the trackside press box after asking questions and trying to determine why an official winner had not been declared.
Nearly three hours after the conclusion of the race, Matt McCall was officially declared the winner of the Thanksgiving Classic.
Diaz returned to the press box and was asked for a statement. What he provided was a lengthy explanation over what he deemed a no-win scenario.
“This is exactly what’s wrong with racing,” Diaz said. “We have a rulebook, and I understand that. It’s nothing more than me trying to keep my integrity as a track owner. It 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…
“So I, as a track owner, am not going to make out well in this. Without putting my personal opinions into it, I know that this was not the right decision for some, and it was not the right decision for others. It was a mistake by my race track officials to not identify the position of the transponder. But that was a transponder that I don’t think won the race.
“So some people want me to go by the rule book, because that’s what we all fight for. But as much as some people want me to go by the rulebook, I do not think the transponder position is what lost Justin Johnson the race.”
So essentially, Diaz and his staff took the decision out of the realm of the rule book. The judgement call was made that, even though McCall was in violation of the rules, it violation did not win him the race.
Thus the results on the track would stand.
“Here’s a race that clearly he [McCall] dominated the last 20 laps of the race,” Diaz said. “If at any point Justin had the car to beat him, he would’ve. We wanted to let what happened on the track stand.”
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