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How NASCAR Can Follow Baseball’s Example

Dubbed as America’s pastime, the game of baseball has been one of sports’ beauty and grandeur in the United States.

From oil rigs to schoolyards to cornfields, the game has the captured the allure of millions throughout history.

However, in recent years, the game had sort of lost its luster. MLB television ratings were on the decline, and studies showed that youth baseball participation was curving downward.

Why?

One of the most valid reasons was the pace of the game. From 2016 to 2022, the average time of an MLB game was north of three hours; and league executives took notice.

Among notable rules changes, a pitch clock was instituted to speed the game up. Pitchers now have 15 seconds to pitch without runners on base, and 20 with runners on. That change did its job, decreasing game time by nearly 30 minutes. The average game time dropped to its lowest in 38 years, and only nine games exceeded three hours.

Among the results, the league enjoyed one of its best seasons for attendance since expanding to 30 teams, and while national viewership had its disappointments, regional viewership increased.

Now, I know many NASCAR fans cringe at the sport trying to duplicate stick-and-ball sports, and that is definitely understandable. But this is one of those exceptions.

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This past weekend at Martinsville Speedway, I was covering the NASCAR Xfinity Series race for Frontstretch. With about 30 laps remaining, I found a spot to stand behind the pits to watch the remainder of the race.

With six laps to go, a pileup broke out on the backstretch, triggering a red flag. I moved around to get some pictures of the cars sitting idle on the frontstretch, and then waited, and waited and waited some more.

The red flag lasted approximately 30 minutes, as a couple of cars had laid oil on the track. When the engines re-fired, there was a synchronized cheer from the crowd (and probably the garage area, too).

In an era where NASCAR executives are showing they’re at least willing to try new things, this is one that has been perhaps overlooked: the length of red flags and cautions. With TV ratings still having their blemishes, a network crave for the 18-49 demographic and a world full of short attention spans, this is an area that must be addressed.

The particular area of concern is the clean-up process. NASCAR has done an excellent job of getting safety vehicles such as jet dryers and sweepers that can clean the track up more efficiently. Yet, between them and officials spreading speedy dry, the process is still agonizingly too long.

What these extended clean-ups risk is the potential to overrun the broadcast window, limiting the amount of interviews (don’t worry, Frontstretch has you covered).

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And how about the cars and drivers? Normally, things are able to retain order once the red is lifted. However, there are occasional moments where a car stalls or has a mechanical issue. Plus, how does it affect a driver’s rhythm.

“If you come off a longer green flag run and then have a red flag like that, you have a little bit of a rhythm aspect that you lose,” Daniel Hemric told Frontstretch after Martinsville. We’ve got tire cycles, brake cycles, we’ve got a lot of things going on there.”

This red flag undoubtedly spiked the intensity after it led to an overtime restart, opening the door for chaos to strike. That is not uncommon after a red flag, and the longer a driver has to sit, the more that desperation rises.

NASCAR’s other problem is the amount of caution laps. If we went through the history of the number of caution laps that NASCAR has, we’d be here for a while.

Diving into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs alone, I further consolidated it into the stage cautions.

In 16 cases during the previous nine playoff races where the stage ended around its designated marker, whether naturally or from an incident, the average number of caution laps was six. Keep in mind that the length of tracks influences that count, from tracks like Talladega Superspeedway and the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL to short tracks like Bristol Motor Speedway and Martinsville.

Now, let’s look at the Martinsville race by itself. There were three cautions in the Cup race for a single spin. The first was for Ryan Newman‘s spin on lap 217. There were nine caution laps. Next was Ty Gibbs‘ second spin on lap 304, which took seven laps before the restart. Finally, Michael McDowell spun on lap 324, and once again, it took nine laps before the restart. That’s a problem.

In none of those cases did the spinning driver hit the wall, leak fluid, or hit another car. The only reason for an extended number of laps was when the pace car stalled following McDowell’s spin.

There has been an agitation among many about the head-scratching amount of caution laps, and it is nothing new. In the 2013 NASCAR Xfinity Series finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, a crash with 17 laps to go saw the race restart with just five laps remaining. Austin Dillon won the title over Team Penske’s Sam Hornish Jr. After the race, Roger Penske was left frustrated, saying he had never seen a race with so much at stake that needed a clean-up that long.

NASCAR has been committed to safety and advancing competitor protection for years now, so providing a safe track to race on is understandable. It’s when several laps of cautions for small incidents like spins or debris become an issue. Even large wrecks take an unnecessary amount of time to tidy up.

In my mid-teenage years, I loved visiting Southside Speedway, a currently closed grassroots track in Midlothian, Virginia. When wrecks occurred there, caution laps did not count, and the amount of time it took to get back racing was quick and efficient. As soon as debris was cleared or a car was back in line, the event went green shortly after.

Though NASCAR has more resources to monitor track conditions, it should not take a noticeable shorter amount of time for a local track to clean up than a national, professional racing organization.

While cutting the number of laps of events has been thrown out there, the least NASCAR could do is shorten race times by having quicker caution clean-ups. The last thing it needs are any more inconsistencies or delays to races. Such a move would be a transaction that would benefit the sport all around.

About the author

Luken Glover joined the Frontstretch team in 2020 as a contributor, furthering a love for racing that traces back to his earliest memories. Glover inherited his passion for racing from his grandfather, who used to help former NASCAR team owner Junie Donlavey in his Richmond, Va. garage. A 2023 graduate from the University of the Cumberlands, Glover is the author of "The Underdog House," contributes to commentary pieces, and does occasional at-track reporting. Additionally, Glover enjoys working in ministry, coaching basketball, playing sports, and karting.

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David Nance

I think you’ll find the broadcast partners needing commercial breaks impacting CF lengths as much anything. There is a minimum number of laps any CF period requires. Anything beyond that for routine spins with no impact, no fluids, no debris is Race Control relinquishing the race to the broadcast partners.

DoninAjax

I have wanted for years that laps after a red flag don’t count until the green flag.If they did that at Martinsville there would have been more laps until the checkered flag. The networks can still have as many commercials as the network wants during the caution periods.

gbvette

While I’m not to sure about laps not counting after a red, I never understood why it takes more then 3 laps to restart after one. One lap to pit, one lap to gather up the field after pitting and one to restart should be sufficient after any red.

Ted

I don’t think baseball was the best analogy. World Series ratings hit a record low this year. 😬

wildcats2016

ha ha I was just going to say that — did the writer watch this year’s world series? There sure weren’t a lot of other people who watched based on the ratings. We had it on as background noise a couple of nights. I fell asleep during at least 2 of the games.

Steve

My issue is that due to Nascar’s incompetence with scoring, they apparently can’t keep pit road open all the time. The need to have 2 laps designated for every caution, so everyone can pit, is a joke.

Another issue is the need for Nascar to throw a caution for every spin, even if the driver makes no contact with anything. Unless they are blowing up a huge smoke cloud or something, there is no need for a caution during those times. Especially if these guys are supposed to be the “best drivers in the world” (Cup)

wildcats2016

I totally agree with you, Steve. throwing the caution for every spin doesn’t make any sense. Look at the road course. Other series use local cautions but not NASCAR.

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