Amy Henderson and Mark Howell · Wednesday October 2, 2013
Welcome back to Side By Side. There are always two sides to every story, and we’re going to bring them both to you, right here, every week. Two of our staff writers will face off on an important racing question … feel free to tell us what you think in the weekly poll, and also in the comments section below!
This Week’s Question: Does NASCAR throw debris cautions in an attempt to manipulate the finish of races?
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: NASCAR Throws Caution to the Win
Does NASCAR throw debris cautions in order to manipulate the outcome of races?
Now, the idea that race outcomes are manipulated by the use of phantom caution flags may sound like a bit of a stretch of conspiracy-driven thinking. That’s not to say, however, that a chain of events might be put into motion that could result in a less-than-objective finishing order.
File this idea under “NASCAR’s Credibility Questioned: 2013 Edition.”
The proof? We’ve seen it happen right before our eyes. A tossed water bottle. A rogue piece of roll-bar padding. Excessive amounts of hot dog wrappers. An errant beer can. All of these have been the cause of yellow flags, despite many of these situations being valid reasons for switching on the caution lights. Questions arise when yellows are thrown for less-obvious hindrances, though.
The fictional character we recognize from social media as “Jacques Debris” is alive and well, working for NASCAR on a race-by-race basis. Debris can be both a serious problem and an elusive threat, especially when observers and officials have to police racing surfaces that cover distances of a mile-and-a-half or greater. Using binoculars can suggest the presence of a possible hazard, but that does not mean such a hazard truly exists.
To be fair, NASCAR officials can be placed, when such a sighting occurs, in a precarious position. Do they ignore the suspected debris and allow competition to continue, or do they throw a caution, slow the field, and investigate? Erring on the side of safety makes the most logical sense, but does that not also open the door for an abuse of such safety-related race stoppages?
We’ve suspected and argued about this possibility for years. Most NASCAR fans can harken back to an event where a dominating driver suddenly saw the glare of flashing yellow lights. Advantages of a straightaway (and usually more) were suddenly eliminated as the field slowed under caution and strategized about how to approach necessary pit stops.
When race announcers go from calling “the drive of a lifetime” to explaining that “the field’s been shuffled under yellow,” one cannot help but wonder – especially if there’s no clear footage of what brought about the caution – if NASCAR didn’t steal a page from the NWF’s (the National Wrestling Federation’s) procedural manual. One sport’s folding metal chair is another sport’s caution flag; create the intended result by whatever means necessary.
And we’re not talking about last month’s “Spingate” debacle at Richmond; that was an obvious-enough chain of suspicious events instigated by a team searching for life during the postseason. My point is that given the sheer expanse of terrain covered by a superspeedway, it suddenly becomes real simple for someone with NASCAR to yell “Debris!” and put the field-shuffling mechanism into motion.
Don’t like the driver who’s stinking up your show? Toss the yellow and toss their advantage, right along with it. Who’s going to argue about showing concern for driver (and fan) safety?
Until there’s a public outcry demanding that NASCAR prove the validity of a caution by proving the existence of debris on a racetrack, the decision regarding yellow flags will rest with Brian France and friends. Someone has to officiate a sporting event, and someone has to make tough decisions about both competition and safety. That also begs the question of whether or not that same someone has the authority (and the courage) to tinker with the natural progression of said sporting event.
To shamelessly borrow a classic line from the late, great Midwestern humorist Jean Shepherd: In NASCAR we trust; all others (like Michael Waltrip Racing) pay cash.
Amy Henderson, Managing Editor: There Are Just Too Many Variables
Does NASCAR throw “debris” cautions to spice up the action in a race? Of that, there can be little doubt. But do officials throw the yellow to ensure that a certain driver wins? That’s hard to believe, because there is nothing to guarantee what happens after the yellow flag waves.
There is so much that goes on when the caution flies late in a race. Teams decide whether or not to pit for tires and/or fuel; they choose whether to take two fresh Goodyears or four. Teams make mistakes on pit road and lose several positions. Drivers get into each other entering or leaving their pit boxes. Someone takes a gamble and stays out — maybe several someones. By the time the field lines up for the restart, the running order could look completely different from when the caution flag first flew.
And then, there’s the restart itself. A driver can miss a shift, spin the tires, jump the start. Drivers can make mistakes that lead to a crash and another caution, another restart. The list of things that can happen between the initial yellow flag for debris and the checkered flag is long and complex; NASCAR can’t ultimately control the vast majority of it.
In short, in order to assure a certain outcome to a race, NASCAR would have to have 43 teams on board from the start, and every member of every one of those teams would have to keep it all silent. In the real world, that’s just not going to happen. One team isn’t going to play. One team member is going to let it slip that something’s rotten in Denmark. It’s all a nice theory if you like black helicopters and stuff, but not very based in reality.
Could NASCAR throw a flag to ensure someone doesn’t win? That’s a better possibility than assuring a specific winner, just still not terribly realistic on a regular basis. Yes, NASCAR could have taken a step to avoid the PR nightmare of a Clint Bowyer title after Richmond on Sunday at Dover. Instead, it’s far more likely that the final caution was more to avoid something that fans complain about incessantly: a fuel mileage race. NASCAR has a history of throwing debris cautions when there is little on-track action or if a mileage race is imminent, in an attempt to create excitement in the form of close-quarters racing on the restart. Maybe, in a stretch they’re even looking for a crash to shake things up. Fans like crashes, right? Sure, that’s misguided, since most fans dislike the fake cautions more than the fuel mileage racing, but it’s a far cry from fixing races themselves.
What makes NASCAR look worse than usual over the Dover cautions is the way they handled the Richmond debacle. Many fans were incensed that NASCAR allowed Bowyer, the driver whose spin was meant to alter the outcome of a race, to remain in the Chase and contend for a title. And with a win at Dover, a Bowyer title wasn’t a stretch of the imagination. Bowyer was the only driver whose team was confident they could stretch the fuel to a win at the Monster Mile, so it does look as though this flag might have been an opportunity to make sure that didn’t happen. It’s also possible that NASCAR didn’t want an unpopular win for leader Jimmie Johnson and wanted to tilt the odds toward someone else in Victory Lane.
But it was also nearing the end of a race that didn’t feature even one caution for anything other than debris, and bunching up the field was a way to create a race for the finish, maybe even create a couple more cautions. It wouldn’t be the first time, and it’s far more likely that NASCAR was trying to create entertainment value than to determine who won.
If you like a good espionage novel, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that NASCAR (or anyone else) can determine who wins a race on any given day. That it almost worked at Richmond by a team was a fluke, though plain and simple. Had Ryan Newman’s pit crew simply held his position and not cost him any, something an upper-level Cup pit crew should be doing every stop, the spin becomes a non-issue. There was no way for Bowyer to guarantee that Newman didn’t win, and there is no way for NASCAR to manipulate a race enough to guarantee a certain winner.
It’s all fun to talk about, especially for fans who are more into disliking some teams than they are into cheering for their favorites. But in reality, NASCAR isn’t throwing random debris cautions to assure a specific outcome. There are too many variables and too many people who would have to be in on it. It’s impractical and close to impossible to assure anything with the wave of a yellow flag. Are there contrived cautions to tighten up the field, maybe create another caution or two and/or a close finish? Of that, there is little question. But to assure a specific winner?
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