Brett Poirier · Tuesday July 16, 2013
Brian Vickers nearly had a victory stolen from him on Sunday at New Hampshire, and it wasn’t Tony Stewart or Kyle Busch that would’ve been the thieves. They would’ve only been the beneficiaries. It was NASCAR that nearly robbed Vickers, had he not been able to make his car stick on the outside of a three-wide battle on the last restart.
The fifth debris caution of Sunday’s race certainly came at an interesting time as the field had spread out and Vickers was on his way to a historic win (when was the last time a part-time driver won on a non-restrictor plate track in Sprint Cup?) when the folks in the tower decided to pull some strings and tighten the field.
The debris from the last caution was clearly outside of the racing groove, but by calling for the caution NASCAR clearly felt it was a danger to the cars on track with five laps remaining.
I started laughing as I wrote that last sentence. The caution was pure manipulation, and it’s one of the main reasons there were 36 people in the grandstands at Loudon on Sunday.
Even if the debris was in the racing groove, could a caution be justified with five laps to go when everyone is tight on fuel? The point of the debris caution in the first place is to prevent a driver from cutting a tire, which could potentially cause an accident and impact the race. But if you tighten up the field into a double-file restart, toss out the advantages gained on track in the last run and make the cars run extra distance when they are already close on fuel, isn’t that screwing up the race much more than any piece of debris ever could?
If the excuse is safety, the chance of a crash is elevated about 350% in a green-white-checkered double-file restart versus the race finishing under green.
The last caution made about as much sense as most NASCAR decisions. And as NASCAR fans know, the debris dilemma isn’t anything new. NASCAR knows it can manipulate the race at any time with a debris caution because there are always small pieces of debris on track, whether it is a sandwich bag, elastic band, water-bottle label or the dreaded piece of rubber.
Mike Neff summed up Sunday’s debris cautions pretty well in his race recap on Frontstretch on Monday.
Neff wrote, “Racing involves speed and when objects are traveling at speed and they run into items that aren’t moving it can do damage to a car. However, the incessant cautions for debris that, at least based on what they showed on TV, was nothing more than large pieces of tire slag outside of the racing groove is simply frustrating for both fans and drivers. There is a constant stream of rubber coming off of race tires during events and sometimes it accumulates under cars and falls off in a large piece. It isn’t metal and it isn’t going to cut a tire. The sanctioning body needs to let the drivers race and stop trying to make the race track a pristine environment.”
The one aspect of that I would argue is whether or not NASCAR’s goal is really to make the track a “pristine environment.” It seems that is just the fallacy masking the manipulation to constantly tighten the field and create action-packed racing. I’d prefer the race to run its natural course. If Kurt Busch laps all but five cars on the way to victory, then so be it. The debris cautions, justified or not, created multiple strategies and kept 25-plus cars on the lead lap for most of the race. Vickers, who was a lap and a half down at one point, never would’ve contended for the win without them.
Five of the 12 cautions on Sunday were for debris, but one other yellow flag was particularly troubling. A caution was called on lap 120 after Denny Hamlin slowed on track with a flat tire. There was no debris at the time, and Hamlin wasn’t exactly stopped. He was moving at a decent pace. In the unofficial race report given by NASCAR, the cause of the caution was, “No. 11 slow on track.” Since when is that an acceptable reason for a yellow flag? Last week at Daytona, a multi-car pileup ensued on the final lap with cars crashing and debris flying and no caution was called, but one week later they are throwing cautions because a car slowed down a little?
I guess every lap that Morgan Shepherd attempted to run the yellow flag should’ve flown.
I attended Sunday’s race, and after six of the 12 cautions were called, me and the fans around me stared blankly at one another as we searched for reasoning. The fans watching on television had a leg up as occasionally the cameras catch the debris being lifted from the track surface, but a lot of times they don’t.
“Sometimes, some people are a little more needy than others and they want to see (proof of debris) for whatever reason,” NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton told FOX Sports reporter Jeff Gluck at Charlotte Motor Speedway in early 2012. “And whatever their thought process and beliefs with the governing body (are), they think they need proof.”
There is a reason fans want proof of the debris Robin, and it’s pretty simple — they don’t trust you. And with incidents such as the last caution on Sunday at New Hampshire, how could they? The actual racing takes too much of the brunt when it comes to why fans are leaving the sport. Manipulation by NASCAR officials, and an overall lack of trust in the governing body has played as big of a role as any.
Manipulation is a tricky, tricky thing. NASCAR does it to create closer racing, and in Sunday’s case, a climatic ending to a relatively uneventful race. It gives some fans a story to tell about a chaotic finish, and a reason to come back to Loudon in the fall. It gives other fans a reason not to come back at all.
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