NASCAR's top racing official said series officials "had a rough night" in the regular-season finale Saturday at Richmond Raceway, adding that the ambulance driver who stopped at the entrance to pit road was told multiple times to stop and then "where the vehicle chose to stop was the worst place."
Appearing on his weekly segment on SiriusXM's NASCAR channel, NASCAR executive vice president Steve O'Donnell said Monday morning that the series was fortunate that the error didn't impact the playoffs as much as it could have.
With 144 laps left in the race, Danica Patrick was turned by Austin Dillon, causing a caution. NASCAR opened the pits a lap later, and an ambulance stopped at the entrance to pit road, causing cars to slow and swerve after being caught by surprise. Amid the logjam, Matt Kenseth ran into the back of Clint Bowyer.
Kenseth couldn't continue because the team could not make the repairs within the five-minute time permitted by NASCAR. Bowyer was able to continue with some damage to the rear of his car. Kenseth would have missed advancing to the playoffs if a winless driver (including Bowyer) facing a must-win situation had won the race. Fortunately for Kenseth, Kyle Larson won the race for his fourth win of the year and Kenseth made it to the playoffs.
"That could have had a huge impact on the race -- it actually did -- but even further heading into the playoffs," O'Donnell said on SiriusXM. "That's not something you ever want to see happen. ... We don't want to be part of the story."
As is procedure, a safety truck, an ambulance and a tow truck were dispatched once the yellow was displayed. Patrick was able to keep moving, and getting the emergency response vehicles back in position is where the mix-up began.
"The safety truck was a little bit ahead of the field, so we asked them to stand on the gas and get ahead of the field, which they did," O'Donnell said. "We asked the tow truck and ambulance to stop probably about midway through the backstretch.
"The tow truck did. Unfortunately, there were multiple communications on the ambulance, and it just didn't happen and it stopped in a really bad place."
NASCAR has one official who is in charge of calling cautions as well as opening and closing pit road. That official can also direct emergency vehicles, supplementing direction from the official who is in charge of dispatch.
When a caution comes out, the pits are closed until NASCAR opens them. NASCAR had opened the pits before the ambulance stopped, and it did waive any penalties for drivers who missed the commitment line to avoid the ambulance and then came down pit road.
"The emergency vehicles were riding down the backstretch next to us as soon as we came off of [Turn] 2, and continued all the way until the opening of pit road, and they just left pit road open," said Martin Truex Jr., the leader of the race at the time.
"Somebody obviously wasn't paying attention or wasn't doing their job properly, and in my opinion at this level, it's inexcusable."
O'Donnell said that will be part of its meetings as NASCAR heads to its playoff opener Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway.
"Ultimately it's on us," he said. "We've got a lot of folks who work hard on the race track but we've got to do a better job of communicating. ... If we could go back and look at it, could we have thrown the red light [to close] the pits or would that have even been worse with cars coming down?"