Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: NASCAR Needs Yellow-Flag Common Sense, Not Smoke & Mirrors

There’s been a lot of talk this year about the lack of caution periods in Sprint Cup races. By now you’ve heard the theories on what’s causing the long green-flag runs and whether anything can be done to break them up. Last weekend, Speedway Motorsports Inc. owner Bruton Smith got involved in the discussion, saying that the solution is mandatory caution periods during every Cup race.

You read that right. Smith wants competition yellows during the races, because long green-flag runs are “ruining” the races.

I noted my disgust with the whole idea in The Big Six earlier this week, but there’s much more to the whole story than a couple of paragraphs can adequately discuss.

See also
The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2012 Quaker State 400 at Kentucky

Mandatory cautions have been used in races when weather conditions cause drastic changes to a track between practice or qualifying and the race. They usually happen somewhere between 20 and 50 laps into the race to give teams a chance to check their tires and adjust setups for the different conditions.

To level the playing field, if a competition caution is to be used, teams can’t pit for fuel before that time. And these are fine. They’re thrown for safety reasons, not to manipulate the outcome of a race. Nobody wants to see a driver hurt because of an unexpected problem that comes about because of a green racetrack or one that’s at a significantly different temperature than expected.

But Smith wants to see mandatory cautions thrown later in the races for the sole purpose of forcing restarts to add to the excitement. In other words, he wants to take the questionable debris cautions that often seem to appear for no reason when one team is dominating a race and make them a mandatory part of every race. And there are some people who don’t see a problem with this?

Let’s take a closer look at that. First off, many fans already dislike when a yellow flag is thrown for debris that isn’t obvious to them. One major complaint is that the broadcasting networks don’t show this debris, leading to speculation that NASCAR is throwing the yellow flag to tighten up the field, not to save someone from running over something that could cut down a tire.

If fans are clamoring to see the debris, why would they want to see a caution that they know isn’t for anything other than to create something that isn’t there?

See also
At Daytona, Bruton Smith's Caution Suggestion Dominates Discussion

And then there are the other obvious questions: When throughout the race would mandatory cautions be used? At what tracks should they be seen? Would they hurt the legitimacy of the racing? Those are good questions. Smith said he’d like a flag at the halfway point of a race.

But how quickly does that become a slippery slope? It’s not hard to picture NASCAR trying such an idea and liking the results without thinking of the eventual consequences; they do that all the time. So the next thing you know, we’re having a yellow flag at halfway and three-quarters of the way through each race. And if NASCAR thinks that’s a good thing, well, why not throw one with 20 laps to go, or 10?

And then pretty soon the legitimacy of the race winners are in question. Imagine the outcry when Dale Earnhardt Jr. has a five-second lead with 20 laps to go when the competition yellow comes out. Someone else gets off pit road first, beats Earnhardt on the restart and uses the clean air to go on to win.

And it doesn’t matter who that dominant driver is, the bottom line is, it was his race to lose until the caution comes out for no reason and allows someone else to take a win they really didn’t earn.

Well, some might say, if the leader was really that good, why couldn’t he hold the lead on pit road or on the restart? There are any number of reasons, many of which aren’t that driver’s fault. Sure, maybe his team dropped the ball or he just whiffed the restart. Or maybe someone else blocked him in his pit or knocked him sideways on the restart.

In any case, why tinker with the natural result of a race? On the flip side, maybe that driver would have run out of fuel, cut a tire, or experienced a mechanical failure that would have allowed someone else to win. The wondering what could happen as the laps wind down is part of the excitement of watching a race.

And the thing is, NASCAR can’t pick and choose. If there’s a scheduled caution, no matter who’s leading, they have to throw it. Fans, think about that for a minute. If your favorite is that leader and has the win taken away because of a caution that was thrown for no other reason than to close up the field, would you really be OK with that?

And what about if there’s already a great race for the lead going on when the caution is due to come out? Should NASCAR have the ability to take that away from fans simply to create a restart that may or may not be as exciting as the green-flag battle?

How about the “where?” question? If NASCAR were to add a halftime, wouldn’t it have to be at every track? That means at tracks like Daytona, Talladega, Martinsville, Richmond or Bristol, fans are going to have to endure laps of cars following the pace car instead of the action that was happening before the competition flag! That just doesn’t make sense.

I suppose NASCAR could pick and choose the tracks where they have these caution periods, but that just makes it seem even more like a shameless sham.

Would mandatory cautions hurt the legitimacy of the racing? Of course they would. Racing is a game of skill, but also one of chance. Things can change the face of a race in an instant. NASCAR doesn’t need to fake that.

Race fans often bring up years past as examples of how good racing can be. While there were some great races back in the day, there were plenty where the ending was less than exciting. Take a look at race results from the 1975 season in what is now the Sprint Cup Series (then Winston Cup). In 30 races, no more than four cars finished on the lead lap.

Ten times, a full one third of those races, the margin of victory was counted in laps, not seconds … meaning that only one driver completed every lap. That number includes the 1975 Daytona 500, Southern 500, and Coca-Cola 600. There were plenty of close finishes, too … but plenty were no contest. Yet nobody was complaining that there should be extra cautions to add some excitement!

Have we really become such an ADD society that a race allowed to play out on the track is no longer enough entertainment for race fans? Are we so lacking in imagination that we need to have the races falsely manipulated to provide a satisfying ending?

The current state of TV coverage is partly to blame for fans’ displeasure; we all know that. They show such a limited view of the race that fans usually miss a great deal of the action on the track, which makes the race seem less exciting then perhaps it is to the fans at the track. That is a problem … but it’s a problem whose solution lies with the networks redefining how they cover races, not with finding a gimmick to make the limited racing they show artificially enhanced.

The Chase system also shoulders some of the blame, as does the simple cost of racing. There are drivers racing more to make the Chase than to win races, and others using much of the season as a test session. There are others whose teams can’t afford for their driver to take too many unnecessary risks at one point a pop because they don’t have enough replacement cars.

These factors do cause a different breed of racing. But again, the solution to one badly conceived ploy to create fake excitement is not to add another one. Cost cutting is a much more vital and real issue for NASCAR to work to correct than throwing pseudo-cautions to close up the field.

Throwing these cautions would only add to the rising cost of the sport because, no matter what some people say, one reason to create more restarts is to create the potential for more wrecks. That some fans do watch for the crashes is the sport’s dirty little secret; nobody wants to say it, but it’s there, a niggling little reality.

As I was leaving the media center after the All-Star event, I overheard a conversation in which a pair of female fans said that the race was boring … not because of the on-track action, but because there weren’t any wrecks.

As much as fans want to deny that there are those among them who want the chance for more crashes, there are. And as the old adage goes, cautions breed cautions, which makes the whole idea a thinly-veiled attempt to cause not just one restart, but several, with some spins and hard feelings in between. And while the sport may need rivalries, it doesn’t need to make them that way.

In reality, the racing hasn’t changed as much in recent years as people like to think. Since NASCAR began, there have been great races and there have been clunkers. For every race with a margin of victory of inches, there’s one where it’s measured in laps. That’s just the reality of the sport.

Plenty of things have changed: the way races are broadcast; the incessant focus of the cameras on just a few chosen drivers; the Chase and the Top-35 rule making getting a good finish more important than making a daring move to gain position and risking losing a Chase berth or a guaranteed spot in the field; the cost of competing creating an ever widening gap between the haves and have-nots.

Drivers don’t show up at the track not wanting to win any more than they did 40 years ago, but the consequences of not finishing grow larger with each passing year.

Could it also be that the fans themselves have changed? We live in a world of instant gratification, and a 500-mile stock car race rarely provides that. As people get older, they sometimes look at the old days through rose-colored glasses. What was mediocre at the time grows better as time goes by and we block out the not-so-nice parts.

Perhaps this plays a role. Perhaps the new breed of race fans who came on board in the last decade expecting the nonstop excitement of a video game or action movie expected too much, misled by advertising campaigns and slogans that make the sport look like every race has a finish with the leaders three wide and inches apart and hair-raising crashes every few laps.

That was never reality and perhaps the sport should have been marketed more like baseball than rough-and-tumble football-a game of strategy where nothing is certain until the last pitch and where a no-hitter is every bit as exciting as a slugfest.

Whatever the case, adding mandatory cautions is not a road NASCAR should even think about heading down. There are many ways to improve things, but those start with examining the reasons behind the complaints, not as a band-aid for some deeper wounds.

Building gimmick upon gimmick until nobody even remembers what a pure race was won’t fix anything. It will only alienate some fans and cater to a dwindling few. NASCAR needs to fix what’s broken, not break what’s still right.

About the author

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Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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