The Frontstretch: Side By Side: Does NASCAR Use The Yellow To Pick A Winner? by Amy Henderson and Mark Howell -- Wednesday October 2, 2013

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Side By Side: Does NASCAR Use The Yellow To Pick A Winner?

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?

Unless fans step up and demand NASCAR show a piece of debris, this big that’s a reason for a caution flag, random “debris” cautions will likely continue. But…

You bet.

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.

Was the last of Dover’s four cautions really to prevent a situation where “Spingate” perpetrator, Clint Bowyer, would wind up winning?

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?

Not happening.

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
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Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
Happiness Is…Arrogance, Less, Next, and the Outdoors
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10/02/2013 07:58 AM

Heck, yes, NASCAR has phantom cautions and others bogus concerns to tighten the group back up. It’s been too obvious, too many times to not be intentional.

Their favorite is to find debris when the leader is really outpacing the field. The caution bunches the cars up again plus gives the other teams an option to tweak their setup.

The other one that they like to use is when ‘their driver of choice’ is about to go a lap down. This happened much more before the wave around rule but it still occurs when it looks like the green flag will be out for a while.

The caution this past weekend at Dover for the spring rubber that was 20ft. off of the racing surface was proof-positive that they were trying to give NASCAR’s ‘favorite son’ a chance to win.

Guarantees outcomes, no. (Unless one refers to Danica at Daytona, getting the pole, in her first Cup race, then yes.) But NASCAR does indeed manipulate the race.

10/02/2013 08:11 AM

It is in the best interest of members of the nascar media to ask the tough questions of Brian France and company. It nascar wants integrity and this sport to survive and grow and bring back fans to the stands, then the hard questions need to be asked. And nascar needs to show it can handle it.


The late-great David Poole was considered an A-Hole by many, and he would say he was. But he would go toe to toe with the nascar overlords on subjects like this. He would have had a field day with the way Truex was shafted and the Hendrick Wonderboy added as the 13th man.

The fans don’t get the chance to ask Brian France about these things, instead rely on the net and talk shows to vent their frustrations. And we get frustrated to keep seeing the talking heads on TV sugar coat over certain subjects.

Step up nascar media…to help save this thing while we can. Only a fool would believe all this can’t go away in a very short time.

10/02/2013 12:48 PM

Suspicious “debris” cautions are mostly the product of NASCAR trying to make the race more interesting. They are using the restart to camouflage the strung out racing on intermediates. They are also wildly inconsistent when it comes to throwing them. Sunday it was for a spring rubber on the apron. Last year in Watkins Glen there was oil all over the track, but no caution. I don’t care if NASCAR a low standard of what “debris” is just apply it consistently. I give NASCAR some slack since it is like a lot of officiating a judgment call. I don’t think you could write a black and white rule on what offending “debris”. It’s just obvious that the amount of action on the track is determining that standard more often than not.

Carl D.
10/02/2013 12:51 PM

JP… Glad you reminded me of David Poole. Yeah, I think he would have had a field day with the whole Spingate episode and all of the convoluted fallout. These days Nascar is pretty good at insulating themselves from media members that don’t kiss their rear-ends, but that just means the media has to try a little harder.

10/02/2013 03:50 PM

Question who in the NASCAR media has the means to have their livelihood taken away by NASCAR? If any of them actually started to pursue the hard questions associated with some of the b.s. going on within NASCAR the past few years, their cards would be revoked p.f.q.
NASCAR has to be the best spinners of all.

10/02/2013 05:50 PM

Lets not forget, that after every debris caution, we also get the wave around prior to the double file restart…..just in case a favorite is multiple laps down.

10/02/2013 05:55 PM
permalink far as the NASCAR media confronting BF…since his David Poole’s death and FS MM hanging it up that ship has sailed. It took Richmond for most of them to get a spine, but that was only because of online fan rage, and their strength in numbers. Recall their questioning was not immediate….it takes time to stick a finger in the wind.

Fed Up
10/02/2013 07:17 PM

The media is as complicit as NA$CAR in allowing this circus. As everyone has previously noted, no one wants their credentials pulled. Thank goodness for someone like you to call it what it is.

10/02/2013 07:34 PM

I can’t believe this article states that the fans have to have an outcry for Nascar to notice.

What F’N planet are you living on? The fans have been SCREAMING for YEARS!

It’s up to the press to ask the questions that the fans want answers to. The fans are pissed off at the Nascar media just as much as they are at Nascar for being wimpy yes-men.

If you’re going to write articles and blogs on the net bitch’n about Nascar then step it up and confront Brian France about it.

Otherwise, this crap is just going to drag on and the slow death of Nascar will continue.

10/02/2013 08:19 PM

Right on Jp and others. Nascar can manipulate races, nobody else can. What a crock. Anyhoo, the media is extremely bad and cannot be believed because they don’t ask the hard questions to the King and his minions. Hey people, its not Watergate that is being discovered here, its out in the open and people having been screaming for years about Nascar and how they do the insane things they do, and the media doesn’t do a dang thing, but kiss their behinds. Sickening. Just look at the Jenna Fryer AP story a week or two ago “Brian France rights the ship” or something offensive like that. I read it and literally got sick!!!!! The Jenna Fryer’s of the world need a spine, or there won’t be any fans left to warrant them writing anything!

10/02/2013 09:35 PM

This Year Nascar and tv partners have been pretty damn good at showing us debri on the race track. We saw it on Sunday.. We saw the longest green flag run of the season…. and we have seen many long green flag runs lately. so I think your wrong for posting this article today… 2, 3 years ago I would agree Nascar has got a lot A LOT better… I cant recall the last time time they ddnt show the debri on tv this year

Bill B
10/03/2013 07:12 AM

Do you watch every race? If so, watch a little closer. I still see cautions all the time where nothing is shown.

Mike S.
10/03/2013 06:28 PM

I’ve said for quite a while that NASCAR should put a helmet cam on the safety worker whose job it is to pick up the debris off the track, so that we can actually see if there’s anything to pick up. It’s simple and could answer many questions about the integrity of the debrise cautions.


Contact Amy Henderson

Recent articles from Amy Henderson:

Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Announces Partnership with Cessna, Textron
Fans To Decide Format of Sprint Unlimited at Daytona
UNOH and Kentucky Speedway Extend Sponsorship Agreement
Earnhardt Out For Charlotte and Kansas After Talldega Concussion
Piquet, Jr. Wins K&N East Opener

Want to know more about Amy or see an archive of all of her articles? Check out her bio page for more information.