RICHMOND, Va. – Not even a meeting with NASCAR officials helped Carl Edwards understand why he was given a penalty at Richmond International Raceway.
"We had to just agree to disagree and that's the way it is," Edwards said.
In contrast, Tony Stewart knew exactly why he lost Saturday night's race.
"We did everything we could to throw it away, it got taken away," the defending Sprint Cup champion said. "I'm pretty ticked off about it."
Both drivers were less than pleased when they left Richmond, where late drama spiced up what had been yet another bland NASCAR race. There were just three cautions — one was a NASCAR-planned competition — through the first 310 laps and none had much impact on the race.
That changed when Jeff Burton smacked the wall, leaving behind debris that brought out the yellow with 89 laps remaining. It was Stewart and Edwards on the front row for the restart, and both believed they were the leader.
Edwards sailed away at the green flag, and was immediately penalized for jumping the restart and passing the leader before it was permitted.
What followed was a heated confrontation between crew chief Bob Osborne and the NASCAR official assigned to his pit stall, and a lengthy discussion on the team radio between Edwards and Osborne as they tried to figure out exactly what happened.
Edwards had been told by his spotter he was the leader, and the spotter said that information came from NASCAR. And the leaderboard backed it up, as Edwards was shown in first place. So when he was lined up on the outside of the track, Edwards said he figured NASCAR had made a mistake, and he made a split-second decision to try to get the best restart he could.
This part is not in dispute: Replays clearly showed Edwards rocketed past Stewart and had cleared him before reaching the official restart zone.
And that's against the rules, no matter who was leading the race.
"At the end of the day, it comes down to jumping the restart and that's pretty straightforward," Osborne said. "Our issue was the confusion about who was the leader and who wasn't the leader."
But why was Edwards being shown as the leader? NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said Edwards had tripped the timing and scoring when he crossed the line ahead of Stewart under caution while cleaning his tires.
"What you've got to understand is the electronics," Pemberton said. "When the transponder crosses the start/finish line — when Carl was scrubbing his tires, he beat (Stewart) to the line — so that instantaneously puts him up top.
"It happens all the time, but these circumstances don't stack on top of it. That put him up on top of the board just because he was coming to the line with one to go."
The penalty dropped Edwards to 15th. He briefly fell a lap down, and wound up finishing 10th. It was a disappointment considering Edwards led a race-high 206 laps and is still seeking his first win of the season. And it didn't seem to matter what NASCAR's explanation was, Edwards believed he had a win taken away from him.
"They run the sport and they do the best job they can, and I drive a race car and do the very best job I can," said Edwards, who took a few moments to compose himself after leaving the meeting with NASCAR.
"I'd rather not say what was said in there. This whole thing is very frustrating. I don't feel like we did the wrong thing."
Stewart wasn't any happier about his race, which ended with a third-place finish to Kyle Busch.
Stewart had led four times for 118 laps, and was out front when NASCAR called a caution for debris 12 laps from the finish. The leaders pitted, and Busch beat Stewart off of pit road, and easily handled the champion on the restart.
Stewart was annoyed with NASCAR over the caution, and his team for the slow pit stop.
"When the caution is for a plastic bottle on the backstretch, it's hard to feel good about losing that one," he said. "And we gave it away on pit road. That's the best car I've had at Richmond in a long time. But we've got some work to do on pit stops right now. I don't know what their malfunction was."
The controversies — and perhaps Busch winning the spring race at Richmond for the fourth straight time — are what will be remembered from Saturday night. It's been a strangely calm stretch of racing for NASCAR, which has not seen a multiple car accident since Martinsville a month ago. The races at California, Bristol, Texas, Kansas and now Richmond were all fairly clean, with long green-flag runs that were short on the aggression and activity fans seem to prefer.
It was thought that Richmond might bring a return of the beating and banging of a typical Saturday night short-track race, but it never happened. But as Busch left following his first win of the season, he knew that the final debris caution changed everything and that's all that was important.
"It was a gift," Busch said of the last caution flag. "I just don't know where it came from or what it was or anything, but it doesn't matter."