Following the second caution for debris in turn 3 of Sunday’s race, the fan standing in front of me at New Hampshire Motor Speedway turned and suggested the safety worker probably went out and picked up the same piece he picked up last time. He was in the same exact spot.
In other words, the fan suggested the safety worker must’ve thrown that first piece back to give NASCAR officials an excuse to throw the caution later in the race. I’m not sure that he was joking, either. That’s one heck of a conspiracy theory, and as it turns out, fans that attend races at New Hampshire are full of them.
New Hampshire fans have seen more mysterious activity than O.J. Simpson’s neighbors. If you’ve sat in the grandstands at Loudon, you know what I’m talking about. When the caution flies, 3,000 people — I think that’s how many attended Sunday’s race — quickly scope the track, turn to the person on the left with their hands out, turn to the person on their right and ask, “What happened?” Some look to the sky for UFOs.
The grandstands are a sea of confusion. Morgan Shepherd might be the only person on the track who knows what I’m talking about. It’s like when Shepherd saw that fire in his pit box and drove away, running without a left-rear tire and armed with a wrench in the back. That’s how New Hampshire fans felt four times on Sunday.
There were seven cautions. Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano and Justin Allgaier wrecked; I understand those. But the other four yellows were for debris a substantial distance outside the racing groove. If a car were to drift up toward those debris piece(s) in turn 3, it would’ve already encountered a problem much, much worse than the debris was going to cause. Kyle Larson isn’t running against the wall in the turns at Loudon. Unless your car is working like Brad Keselowski’s, it’s a one to one-and-a-half-groove track. That, combined with cars sliding around, leads to a lot of single-file action. It hasn’t led to as many long green-flag runs as it probably should, though, because of debris cautions.
Debris is a tricky term because it can include really anything: a hot dog wrapper, a piece of rubber, a rear spring, a cocker spaniel, your wife, a cigarette butt, a piece of tape, etc. My point is that debris is everywhere at all times. There are always big chunks of rubbers outside the groove, small pieces of metal, Morgan Shepherd — something is always out there. So NASCAR can always throw a caution for it, and pretty much always get away with it without any backlash.
Writers were too consumed in Shepherd’s amazing journey — from stalling next to Johnson to wrecking Logano — to pay attention to what else was causing the cautions. And frankly, railing against phantom debris is an old story. (Maybe not as old as Shepherd. He raced against Jacques Debris on the beach at Daytona.)
Phantom debris is a story far too often after NASCAR races, but I’d argue it has plagued New Hampshire worse than any other track. There were 12 cautions in the summer race in 2013, and five were for debris. That included one that set up a green-white-checkered finish and nearly cost Brian Vickers a victory. The issue also reared its ugly head at the fall race at Phoenix, another flat, one-mile track with one groove. And fans in Indianapolis, get ready, it’s coming to a track near you. We’ll give you this weekend off to prepare yourself for when that first debris caution is called on July 27. Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a big track — debris is everywhere. So plan your first move now while considering these possibilities: throw your hands up in disgust, stage a walk out, phone a friend…
Keselowski is going to have a lot tougher of a time lapping the field at Indy, so maybe NASCAR officials will use less debris cautions, but the race at Indy is like watching paint dry, so maybe they’ll use more. Either way, officials will be sure to leave their fingerprints on the race’s outcome. God forbid Keselowski lap all but 10 cars and the race is settled the right way. That might’ve been OK 20 years ago, but not today. Those 3,000 fans at New Hampshire might not come back. Oh wait, that track used to sell out. The conspiracy theorists left used to have to fight and claw to get on a season ticket waiting list.
As for the safety worker throwing the piece of debris back just so he could just pick it up later… I’m not ruling it out.