Race Weekend Central

4 Burning Questions: COTA Cup Race Ending Was a Catastrophe That Cannot Happen Again

1. Should stage cautions be removed everywhere?

Not every driver was ecstatic for the lack of stage cautions at Circuit of the Americas, but the races certainly had a different feel from road courses in the past.

That was especially obvious in the middle of the NASCAR Cup Series race, as the field embarked on a 26-lap green-flag run that involved the entirety of stage two and the opening part of the final stage.

William Byron and Tyler Reddick were the fastest cars of the race, and both drivers found themselves on opposite pit strategy during this time. The field may have gotten spread out, but the viewers were treated to a fun battle where both Reddick and Byron would make pit stops and then try to run the other down. It was a welcome change, and it’s a battle that wouldn’t have happened with stage cautions.

Reddick, who went on to win the race, said that he found a lack of stage cautions more enjoyable.

Another added bonus in the lack of cautions was that the field was not required to run two or three laps at pace car speed; the energy and intensity remained throughout the entire run. At a track where a single caution will account for at least 3% of a race, every green-flag lap counts.

Stages were also added to help TV with commercials, but I did not sense a noticeable difference without the cautions. That would be something for people to keep track of in the five remaining road course races this season.

Was Sunday (March 26) enough to entertain the idea of removing stage cautions at ovals? Perhaps, but there are still five Cup races left in this experiment. But if this race was the first step toward removing stage cautions entirely, it certainly did its job.

2. What’s going on with penalties?

Frustrated after the Cup race at COTA, Daniel Suarez bumped teammate Ross Chastain out of the way on the pit road entry apron and then repeatedly bumped into Alex Bowman on pit road with a NASCAR official not too far away.

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2-Headed Monster: Is There a Rivalry Brewing at Trackhouse Racing?

Suarez was ultimately fined $50,000 for his actions. The penalty for pit road shenanigans makes sense, as Ty Gibbs was fined $75,000 for running into Ty Dillon on pit road at Texas Motor Speedway last September; Gibbs’ fine was larger due to prior history.

The controversy, however, is that the penalty comes right on the heels of Denny Hamlin’s penalty for intentionally putting Chastain in the wall at Phoenix Raceway.

Hamlin’s actions weren’t even on NASCAR’s radar until he admitted to them on a podcast the next day. And while there is still an appeal pending, Hamlin was fined $50,000 and docked 25 points for his actions.

Huh? Don’t get me wrong, I thought it was foolish for Hamlin to say the quiet part out loud. But what Hamlin did on the track is far, far less egregious than Suarez bumping into Chastain and Bowman on pit road. Yet Hamlin was handed the larger penalty anyway.

And the excuse that it was an accident isn’t in play either, as Suarez said over the radio that he couldn’t wait to get to the two.

As one can imagine, Hamlin was not impressed with the development.

Compounding all of this is the fact that the 100-point and 10-playoff-point penalties for Hendrick Motorsports’ louver modifications were removed on appeal for all four cars (the fines and crew chief suspensions remained, however).

RFK Racing’s No. 6, Front Row Motorsports’ No. 34 and Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 4 were all hit with the same penalties for illegally modifying single-source parts last year. SHR decided not to appeal while RFK and FRM had their appeals denied.

So what’s the difference here? Why did Hendrick get its penalties reduced while the other teams didn’t?

It all goes back to transparency. NASCAR (as well as the appeals board) needs to be crystal clear on penalties and their appeals. Why did Hendrick have its penalties reduced on appeal while none of the teams last year did? How did the sanctioning body decide on the penalties for Suarez and Hamlin?

Furthermore, the appeals panel can only discuss the ruling, not the steps that led to it. This secrecy will only lead to accusations of favoritism, especially when the penalties are inconsistent.

And as for the appeals board, NASCAR might have its own problem to work out; it clearly wasn’t happy that the points penalty was overturned.

3. The ending to the Cup race at COTA was a disaster. How can it be prevented?

There was a lot of hype heading into last weekend at COTA. It was the first race without stage cautions since 2016, and Kimi Raikkonen, Jenson Button and Jordan Taylor were all competing in the capitol of Texas.

A significant international audience was going to take interest in the race, and for 60 laps, the race had lived up to its billing. That is, until the final 15 ruined it.

It’s been the same story in yet another weekend of 2023. A late caution comes out, and the drivers yet again throw caution to the wind and put on an embarrassing display.

The race went to triple overtime — the first such Cup race since 2020 — as drivers kept going five-, six-wide into turn 1 while refusing to give an inch. There were four consecutive spins and crashes on restarts in that turn, and Raikkonen, Button and Taylor said they were shocked by the amount of aggression after the race had concluded.

This is supposedly a field of the greatest stock car drivers in the world, and the fact that the field struggles to complete a two-lap shootout in orderly fashion is a black eye. Will anything change? Not for the moment, at least.

One of the beauties of NASCAR is that the drivers and cars can make contact with each other from time to time.

But there is a huge, huge difference between bumps/aggression and going full speed into a wide corner in the hopes of using the car in front of you as brakes. What we saw at the end of Sunday was not a display of aggression, it was a display of ineptitude. It showcased exactly what Kyle Busch had said at Atlanta Motor Speedway earlier in the month.

And if champions from Formula 1 and IMSA are shocked by the driving displayed, there is a problem that has to be addressed.

There are two solutions that drivers and fans likely don’t want to see: penalizing drivers for contact or getting rid of overtime.

Penalizing drivers for causing an accident will drive home the message that a certain style of driving cannot be tolerated, but they are also judgment calls. For everyone that agrees with a call, there will be someone that disagrees. This should be a last resort.

Reducing the number of overtime attempts or scrapping overtime entirely would also be controversial, as it would rid fans more opportunities of seeing finishes under green; this should also be a last resort.

However, the process of restarts should be changed. Double-file restarts can remain for the majority of a race, but for the final 10 laps of a race plus overtime, the field needs to take the green single file.

Single-file restarts would give the drivers more maneuverability on a racetrack. Drivers were fanning out six-wide heading into turn 1 at COTA, a strategy that clearly didn’t work. But if the restarts were single file, the field would only be three-, four-wide heading into turn 1 — far more manageable.

Double-file restarts are a privilege, and they shouldn’t be brought back at the finish until the drivers can consistently bring their cars home in one piece.

See also
NASCAR Mailbox: R-E-S-P-E-C-T & No More Road Courses?

4. Has Zane Smith established himself as an elite road racer?

Zane Smith was one of the fastest trucks at COTA on Saturday (March 25), and when leader Busch got hung out to dry by a caution with 15 to go, Smith — who was running second — pounced on the opportunity.

As Busch had to make a pit stop, Smith inherited the lead for a restart with 13 to go. That was the final restart of the day, and Smith cruised to a five-second win over Busch after the latter was unable to complete the comeback after starting the restart in 16th.

Smith led the most laps of the day (16), and it was his second straight win at COTA in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. But that’s not all; since the start of 2022, Smith’s results on road courses have been first, second, second, first.

And Smith’s dealt with some pretty tough competition, too. He had to deal with Busch, among other Cup drivers, in both his wins at COTA. His runner-up finish at Sonoma Raceway last year came behind Busch, and his runner-up result at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course came behind a dominant Parker Kligerman, who led more than 80% of the laps.

Unlike the NASCAR Xfinity Series’ monumental schedule with eight road courses, the Truck Series will only visit COTA and Mid-Ohio this season.

Smith already looks to be a favorite for Mid-Ohio, however, and while the plan with FRM appears to be sending him straight to Cup down the road, it might be worth loaning him out to another team for road races in Xfinity. If he’s caught on as quick as he has in a truck, he’d eventually become a contender in that series as well.

About the author

Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch, and his weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” Stephen also writes commentary, contributes weekly to the “Bringing the Heat” podcast and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage. A native of Texas, Stephen began following NASCAR at age 9 after attending his first race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.

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The ending at COTA was exactly what the brain trust envisioned when they came up with their ideas to improve on Brian’s vision for his product. To them that was “entertainment”!

Bill B

Regarding #s 1,2,and 3; Not sure I agree 100% with everything exactly but it would be an improvement from the current situation and a good start.

  1. The stages wound up being competition yellows. They used to race to the halfway flag because there was money involved.
  2. Pit road is different than on the track. There should be a different standard for incidents there.
  3. The problem with COTA is that it wasn’t designed for stock cars. It’s wide at that turn so the open wheel cars can get through. A Watkins Glen and Sonoma, the tight turns only really allow for 2 cars to get through there. I don’t blame any of them for diving in there.It is a race so they try out braking each other. With the road courses, if the road isn’t blocked by the time the cars take the white flag, then let them race back to the checkered. Most of the spins were cleared in just a few seconds. There was no reason for a full course yellow. Local yellows could be a solution.
  4. Zane has had some good finishes. Elite Road racer? Let’s see how he does after 5 years and then revisit this.
Kurt Smith

I thought I was the only one that saw the solution to this being so simple. To penalize drivers for driving aggressively is unenforceable and stupid, especially when NASCAR has created an environment where only winning matters.

Make it impossible to go more than three wide in the first turn at COTA, Indy, the Roval and all of the other road courses, and drivers won’t do it. Problem freaking solved!

Unfortunately, NASCAR will revel in their arrogance and continue to say nothing is wrong with the road races, rather than implementing a simple fix. Because their arrogance has worked so well in growing their audience over the last 20 years.

Kevin in SoCal

Same dive-bombing happened at Indy Road Course last year, too. I like the idea of single-file restarts.

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