Race Weekend Central

Beside The Rising Tide: NASCAR’s Tidal Wave-Around Rule

It was a late October day in Virginia, paired with temperatures that felt more like Memorial Day and not a cloud in the sky. There was a race that actually started prior to 1:30 at Martinsville, the scenic and historic half-mile short track nestled in a historic area ablaze in autumnal foliage. Good ol’ short track racing, side-by-side, lap after lap ensued with tempers getting short and fenders getting shredded. It was NASCAR racing for the longtime fan, competition the way it ought to be but usually ain’t.

What could go wrong?

Well, for one thing a caution flag flew on lap 358 after Carl Edwards slammed the wall. That mis-happenstance fell right at the beginning of a sequence of green-flag pit stops. (Yes! Green-flag pit stops at Martinsville. I checked the ashtray and there’s no Denver roaches so yes, it really did happen.) NASCAR is normally loathe to throw caution flags in the midst of a pit stop cycle; but, in instances like Sundays they’re left with little choice. Then, just to get in on the act AJ Allmendinger, who was listed as leader of the race at that point, ran out of gas after picking up the pace car.

Naturally, there was a great deal of confusion amongst the competitors and fans as far as who was running in what order and how many laps one driver or another might be off the pace. That confusion also reached the control booth where NASCAR’s braintrust huddled to try and sort out the mess. Talk about bringing a knife to a gunfight. For a full half hour – about thirty laps – the confusion dragged on. (Not to get off topic, but why wasn’t the red flag displayed once it became obvious this whole mess was going to take a while to sort out? )

To add to the merriment, Jimmie Johnson’s mount rolled to a stop under the extended caution. It was thought the No. 48 Chevrolet had run out of gas but, as it turns out, that wasn’t the case. Johnson said after the race he accidentally triggered an ECU switch to the off position while doing something else. (I don’t know…. maybe he was trying to tune the radio to get a local traffic report?) That, in turn led to Steve Letarte giving an extended explanation on how the reserve fuel tank works, a nice thought except I am told such a system would be illegal. I know I’ve never heard of anyone switching to the reserve tank before and I’ve been following this sport a long time.

Yes, the circumstances were less than ideal. But in these days of computerized scoring I am baffled why NASCAR couldn’t revert to the last timing loop the leader crossed prior to the caution flag flying. With all the cameras inside the cars and around the track it should have been easier to decide any judgment calls. Certainly, officials could have been able to get a quick handle on which drivers were on the lead lap and which were one or more laps down. The wave-around rule also caused a great deal of problems. There seemed to be a general uproar when Kevin Harvick passed the pace car to take advantage of the situation but in the end, he wound up finishing 20th anyway so some folks will say it doesn’t matter.

One of the reasons NASCAR gave for the extensive amount of time to restart the race was that every point was so crucial in a Chase race. Balderdash to that. NASCAR ought to be just as careful and determined to get the restarting order perfect in every race. After all, a single lost point could potentially keep a driver from making the Chase in the first place. Comments like that help explain why a lot of fans feel NASCAR shows favoritism to the Chasers intending to keep their version of the playoffs exciting right down to the last lap at Homestead.

Certainly, some folks sounded the alarm earlier in the race when NASCAR threw a caution for “debris on the back straight” moments after Johnson’s Chevrolet developed a severe tire rub. The “debris” in question was an advertising banner along the backstretch that was beginning to tear. Yep, that was another new one for me. But as the announcers in the NBC booth direly warned, that banner could have blocked off a car’s front grille keeping cooling air from reaching the radiator. Or, it could have entirely blocked a driver’s windshield. (I couldn’t have been the only person thinking to myself, “or put someone’s eye out!”) Has NASCAR instituted a rule against giant inflatable fruit props at the track after the near calamity at Chicago way back when?

Anyways, the fact Johnson’s Chevy wound up sitting stationary for an extended period of time during the fuel crisis that wasn’t had others screaming especially since Johnson was clearly not maintaining pace car speed. Officially, I am told that there were only four cars on the lead lap when Johnson’s Chevy rolled silently to a stop. (Maybe to see if the levee was dry? I believe there’s a reserve levee behind the dyke.) The leader never passed him, or whomever NASCAR presumed to be the leader at that moment never passed the No. 48.

Maybe it was all legit. Who knows? But there’s no arguing that the extended caution did affect the outcome of the race. Had the event been red-flagged and restarted just about every team would have had to make an additional pit stop.

A great deal of the confusion stemmed from NASCAR’s wave-around rule instituted in 2009. There was even some confusion as to the “free pass” rule which is often referred to as the “fortunate canine” rule or something like that. I know some, if not most of you are going to disagree with me on this point but I actually favor the free pass rule.

Why? Most of you were around back in the day but allow me to address newer fans here a moment. Before the free pass rule went into effect the field actually raced back to the yellow flag. A driver who was a lap down could try to speed up (sometimes roaring through the scene of the wreck) to beat the leader back to the caution flag. The leader could choose to let that fellow by (if he was a teammate or friend) or speed up himself to pin the other driver a lap down. Things didn’t always work out as expected. Dale Earnhardt Sr., for example was notorious for not letting his teammate Mike Skinner get a lap back.

Whatever the case, having drivers racing back to the yellow often delayed rolling emergency vehicles to the scene of the wreck and I hope we can all agree that’s not acceptable. Everything came to a boil at New Hampshire many years ago when Dale Jarrett’s stricken race car was stalled sideways on the track with the driver’s side numbers facing oncoming traffic. Other drivers were still racing to the line, coming at full speed and with Jarrett sitting vulnerable inside the car. Fortunately, nobody hit DJ but it was a close call and soon afterwards the free pass rule was added to the rulebook. If the alternative is to have drivers racing back to the yellow again, I can live with that alternative.

The wave-around rule is another matter altogether. It was a rule that NASCAR made for stupid people, a tacit admission they think a whole lot of their fans are stupid. Here’s how it works. Let’s say that there’s 16 cars on the lead lap and six cars one lap down in a race to make the numbers easy. (And Harvick is very likely one of them.) A caution flag falls because Johnson’s reserve tank falls off the car and the first 16 cars dive for the pits. Cars a lap or more down can elect to stay out on the track (which means they forego the advantage of fresh tires and a full tank of fuel.)

Those lap down cars cannot pass the pace car and advance their position (even if it is bright pink.) Then, the 16 lead-lap cars return to the track. For purposes of this example let’s say drivers in positions 1-16 maintain their running order exiting the pits and nobody gets caught going Denny Hamlin on the timing lines. (Nor does anyone exit the pits with a fuel can still attached to the car. Though that didn’t draw a caution recently it does seem a fuel can falling off a car is a lot more likely to cause mayhem and injury than an advertising banner but let’s not go there.)

So anyway, the race leader at the time of caution (who also exited the pits first) returns to the track. Technically, he’s still ahead of those six cars between him and the pace car. Those six drivers are on “the tail end of the lead lap.” Thus, they were running in positions 17-22 but they are restarting the race ahead of the leader and the other lead-lap cars. As our British friends might say: “Oh well. Can’t be helped. Carry on.”

Typically, the leaders who had pitted made quick work of the “tail end of the lead lap” cars given their fresher tires and to be up front, they typically had faster, better-handling cars. The action as the field settled itself back to stasis was often quite exciting and more than a few times quite physical. It breathed some life back into many races that had long since gotten stale with the leader having advantage of clean air on the nose of his car and no one in the way. Eventually, any driver who stayed out would have to pit. Their hope was that the caution would fly again quickly, allowing them to restart at the tail end of the pack.

Yes, you had to know who drove which car to sort things out on such a restart. The leader was the inside car on row four, not row one but most race fans could sort that out in their minds. Stupid people could not. Stupid people need the leader to restart right behind the pace car on the front row to know who was winning and NASCAR decided to cater to the stupid people, not fans invested in the sport with an IQ higher than a Screaming Hairy Armadillo. (Hey, back in the day, the lead-lap cars used to line up in order on the outside lane with the cars a lap or more down lined up in order on the inside lane for restarts!)

However, the wave-around rule is corporate welfare for everyone. Was a driver a lap down because he pitted just before the caution flag flew and everyone else stayed out, or was he a lap down ten laps into the race because his car was running like a three-legged goat and he wasn’t a very good driver to begin with? Doesn’t matter; everyone gets this wave-around rule now! So we go from a race with four drivers on the lead lap to 20 drivers on the lead lap without anyone technically having passed anyone at all. (Unless you want to count the pace car.) It’s a stupid rule for stupid people and I’ve rarely heard any fan with anything kind to say about it, though I guess some of them are more tolerant of the foolishness when it benefits their favorite driver.

Certainly, not having the wave-around rule would have greatly simplified resetting the starting order for the race last Sunday. First would have come the cars one lap down that stayed out, then the four cars on the lead lap, then the one free pass driver starting two spots behind the leader. Next would have been the cars a lap down that did pit or cars two or more laps down.


That’s how we play tic-tac-toe in Timbuktu and there’s no need to argue over it for 30 laps while trying to straighten out a colossal mess while running cars out of gas out on the track with the pits closed. Nor do we need to give the pit crews a mulligan by eliminating the need for a final stop after a half-hour long ordeal.

When the nice folks down at Martinsville coined the phrase “a half-mile of mayhem” to describe their track I don’t think a prolonged, mind-boggling scoring error was what they had in mind. But given the nature of the gimmickry and new rules in modern day stock car racing perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the law of unintended consequences and unexpected circumstances cause all this confusion. You’d like to think after racing 67 years at a half-mile short track the powers that be could handle an occasional curveball. But somehow, an old expression about a two-car funeral in a one-parlor town kept coming to mind on what should have been a perfect Sunday afternoon.

About the author

Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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the scoring kafoffle was 30 mins?
huh… didn’t even realize it as i had the FF button pinned to the floor.
So imagine that, the sponsoring body has found a way to even screw up martinsville.
wonder what’s next

Bill B

I don’t like the lucky dog but I can live with it in the name of safety. The wave around rule on the other hand is a terrible. In all of this you missed the biggest difference. Before the wave around rule the only time the tail end of the lap cars came into play was during a round of green flag pit stops when the caution came out. In that case there would be cars behind lined up in front of the leader but behind them in scoring.
The difference today is that even when cars aren’t in the middle of green flag pit stops if a caution comes out cars a lap down have the opportunity to not pit and take a wave around to get a lap back. Before this ridiculous rule if you were a lap down and the caution came out, staying out did not give you the opportunity to take a wave around just by virtue of the lead lap cars pitting. Once you were a lap down, you stayed a lap down even if all the leaders pitted and you didn’t. And now we have the great NASCAR entitlement program.

Am I remembering this wrong or not?


there is no way that with transponders on the cars and computers in scoring they didn’t or at least couldn’t tell the running order. IMHO it was all an exercise in “fairness” trying to prevent anybody from the “penalty” of having made a green flag pitstop.
Just another in a long list of reasons why the ship is slowly sinking.


i’m not unfeeling, but i knew the hendrick team, specifically johnson, would end up winning at martinsville. it was this race weekend several years ago when the hendrick team plane went down and all those aboard were killed.

reserve fuel tank? guess the hendrick payola check to brain fart cleared the bank of daytona in time for the wink-wink of the weekend. on this special memorial weekend for the hendrick teams. i also think a call was played to brain fart from chevy saying how the final championship weekend can’t be just a toyota winner take all deal. got to get bowtie in the mix. let’s see how ford does next weekend. phoenix should be harvick playground.

nothing changes. like how a title sponsor hasn’t been secured and as the article i read said the next season doesn’t start til mid-feb. guess that’s na$car’s new business plan.


No Ford driver made the final-4 last year, and nothing was said. There won’t be a Ford in the final-4 this year either. This must be a total embarrassment for Ford, as they sponsor the season finale. Oh well!


Janice, not picking on you but since you brought it up, why do we as fans care about the title sponsor? Not going to benefit us at all that I know of. Just more money in the France family coffers.

In fact, it might be a good thing if they couldnt secure a sponsor, although they certainly will. Maybe when they have to write the checks, or the teams start complaining about the checks being smaller, some drastic action will be taken.
Until then same old, same old.


People forget the reason we have the “waive around rule” was to accommodate double-file restarts. You couldn’t line up lap-down cars to the left of the leaders anymore. Without the waive-around, the only way to get a lap back would be with the “lucky-dog” because all lappers had to start behind the lead-lap cars. People screamed for years to have “short/dirt-track” style restarts. We finally got it in 2009, and the waive-around rule had to follow. That being said, NASCAR did screw-up not red flagging the race when it couldn’t figure out the scoring quickly. There needs to be a rule that depending on the size of the track if you run X number of laps under caution and an issue is not cleared up or there is no threat of weather/darkness, you red flag it until the issue is fixed. However, it didn’t really affect the outcome. The Gibbs cars were still in control until Jimmie’s car came in on the long run.

Bill B

I wasn’t part of the “we” that asked for double file restarts and if the cost of double file restarts is the waive-around (thanks for the proper spelling by the way) then the cost is too high. When the lapped cars were lined up on the inside, maybe once or twice a race that lapped car was able to get their lap back by getting ahead of the leader on the restart. Now we have in some races 20, 30 even 40 cars getting their lap back versus the 2 that would have under the old rules. As far as I’m concerned the cost of that entitlement program is too high and rewards too many undeserving drivers. Next to the chase it is my biggest gripe.

Bill B

BTW, I know 40 sounds like an exaggeration (and maybe it is) but there have been races where the same 15-20 cars have taken multiple waive-around laps. They either went down one lap multiple times or were multiple laps down. That is totally ridiculous to give teams that were that far out to lunch free laps. Not much difference I suppose then giving drivers in 4th to 16th hundreds of points to even them up with the leader at the start of each chase round. What a crock.


That’s an interesting question. Who exactly does the title sponsor benefit? I never smoked so Winston didn’t apply. I don’t drink so Busch didn’t apply. I don’t use Xfinity or Sprint/Nextel as providers. I don’t go camping or rv’ing & have no desire to do so (sorry Camping World). The only title sponsor that applied was Craftsman; now you couldn’t pay me to go to Sears/Kmart (no I don’t want your !@#$ing credit card!).

I’m frankly surprised that any business would sink multi-millions of dollars into teams or daytonastan itself. The ROI simply ain’t what it used to be.


Sorry replied to wrong post. s/b to Janice’s post below.


If I am not mistaken … I believe they got the “Wave-Around Rule” idea from Indy cars … … …


I enjoyed and appreciate the article.
I also enjoyed all the replies. Well said and no flaming. Appreciated.


As far as no Ford driver in their BS title championship. That’s what happens when they kick out the legitimate contender running 2nd in points and then award a season long title to a guy who was running 30th.

It’s not a stick and ball, head to head sport. It’s auto racing. Let “outside” fans learn the reason why “oldtime” fans love the sport, don’t bastardize it for fairweather newbies to understand. Lest you turn your back on the true fans. Then you end up with no fans. Kind of like what’s going on in the bleachers and TV ratings now.

Biff Baynehouse

First of all, the wave-arounds themselves did not caused the issue. All but 4 led lap cars did pitted under the green flag. That got compounded when the yellow flew & leader (#47 – AJ) ran out of gas & stalled. The wave-arounds were proximal, but a separate & distinct stand-alone, yet easily confused issue. Historically, this (caution prior to all lead lap cars pitting under green) has always been confounding, to even the most experienced crews & fans, but not necessarily to Nascar, not this weekend. It might have confounded them in the past, but not now-a-days. Furthermore, to say Nascar was confused on Sunday is an unquantifiable assumption & an overstatement. I think Nascar did an admirable job sorting it & I find the indignant criticisms of race control invalid & baseless. Regardless of current wave-arounds format, in this situation, **it happens …& always has. It is a part of racing! The nightmare was real prior to transponders, time-traps & video. We should be thankful, at least now they can & do get it right. So, I really don’t get the whinge.
Literally, since the inception of motorsports, this sort of situation has been literally IMPOSSIBLE to definitively get right. It is only with the advent of todays today’s technology it gets done properly, which it was in this case. But it is still VERY complex to sort the various data sets, communicate standings back to the crews & instruct cars where to line-up. It still requires copious amounts of time & patients, which are qualities that are seemingly in limited supply amongst the fans & the media, obviously. Regardless, if race-control taking time to sort out the field is intolerable for you, perhaps you should stick to stick & ball sports.
As for going to RED, nah. Extended cautions for field sorting are an ugly, but unavoidable reality of oval racing. If there were less than 50 to go & would say a RED flag would have been a good option, but I can not agree with the notion that the 30 lap caution, with +300 laps to go, had a major affected the final outcome. It did not affect the finish any more than any other mid-race caution changes the outcome of a races. Technically, the all do!
But, I will agree that the wave around process ought’s be kicked to the curb. It is like 20 – 25 (or what ever) lucky dawgs. One lucky dawg negatively affects the integrity of race badly enough! If we had not wave-around system at Martinsville on Sunday, the 3 led lap cars that had not pitted prior to the yellow flag would have restarted at the back of nearly the entire field & that is the way it should be. I think when they started with wave-arounds process, they removed a very exciting & entertaining facet of the races. That being, presumably, forcing the leaders to mix thru & pass all of those lap cars & cars that pitted in the prior sequence. Now, in comparison, the leaders are set at the front & they set sail & gaps grow not only amongst them, but all the way through-out the field as well. So, in my eye, wave-arounds essentially stagnate the races in which they occur. But, to my sensibilities, that’s not even the biggest issue or it’s more despicable affect. For an example of the worst case scenario, I think it was KS last season when the #2 was making fuel run near the end of the race & was holding out for a final pit stop. EVERYONE on the lead lap had already pitted & #2 was the ONLY car on the lead lap when a late race caution flew. Under the old [righteous] system, when the race restarted, the #2 would have restarted behind the field & everyone would have to race all the way around the entire track, UNDER GREEN, to catch him. With the wave-around, the field is literally waved past the caution car, under yellow, & allowed to parade around the track & line up directly behind the #2, which is what has been occurring since the inception of the wave-around system. My example just so happens to be a moot, because #2 was so dominate he won anyway, but that’s not the point. Their waive-arounds penalize superior performance & irrevocably disrupts the natural order & outcome of their events. END OF STORY.
They were brought to be NOT because of double file restarts (as a commenter stated here). It was done under the guise that it is (supposedly) more entertaining & more popular to have “poster-children” leaders at the front of the field for restarts, rather than bury the poster-children at the back of the pack. As for me, I think that is counter-intuitive & the opposite is true. As I said, wave-arounds set the field-up in order for restarts, so that instead having leaders at the back & an organic mixture with lots of passing, you get leaders up front & a synthetic gapping between positions all the way through the field. So, again, much like the “chase”, it was born of instigating TV ratings & increasing interest & comprehension of neophytes (or Matt’s aforementioned “stupid people”). That is to say, quite literal, it is done to appease COMPLETELY IMAGINERY people who have no interest in motorsports that have never & will never give a rat’s ash about Nascar. And it is for THEM that we owe the re-order fields & dishevel outcomes of Nascar events, lol! That’s the fun part!


I have a simple solution to the wave-around rule: give the wave-around drivers a half-lap back. Have a place marked on the backstretch where they’ll restart as the rest of the field restarts on the frontstretch. That way, the essence of the rule remains (no one has to get passed by the leader if they don’t pit), but it’s not such a big advantage like it is now because it’s more likely that wave-around cars would get lapped again unless it’s a really strong car.


The caution for the torn banner was paid for by Rick Hendrix.Nascar is rigged!

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