The Frontstretch: Is Finishing Under Green That Important? by Kurt Smith -- Friday May 2, 2008

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Is Finishing Under Green That Important?

Kurt Smith · Friday May 2, 2008

 

From the about.com website explaining NASCAR:

A yellow flag means that there is a hazard on the racetrack and that the drivers should slow down and stay behind the pace car. This flag typically is displayed when there has been an accident. However it can come out for other reasons such as light rain, debris, an emergency vehicle needing to cross the track, a NASCAR tire check or even if an animal has wandered out onto the track.

Most of us remember the Talladega race in April 2004. Jeff Gordon passed Dale Earnhardt, Jr. with just a couple of laps to go. Just after Gordon made the pass, Brian Vickers spun and the caution flag waved. Gordon was found to be ahead of Earnhardt, Jr., and the race finished under caution, with Gordon declared the winner. Many angry Earnhardt, Jr. fans littered the track with debris.

NASCAR has spent the last four years attempting to placate people who throw trash and coolers in the name of green flag finishes instead of ending races safely under the yellow.

A few races later, Jimmie Johnson won at Pocono in a race that also finished under caution. Even though no driver was likely to catch a 48 car that was cruising ahead of everyone in the field, there were still fans that felt that they hadn’t gotten their money’s worth. One disgruntled patron threw a cooler at the official in the flag stand.

After the Pocono race, for the first time in the sport’s long history, NASCAR—and much of the racing press—suddenly began treating a race that ended under yellow as an absolute travesty, despite the fact that the winner was still the driver that was leading after 500 miles. And so the green-white-checkered rule was introduced, to help ensure that that the race winner does not cross the finish line under the blasphemous combination of checkered and yellow flags waving in unison.

Around the same time, NASCAR implemented the “free pass”, or “lucky dog” rule, in response to Dale Jarrett’s car being immobile in the middle of the track at Loudon as several cars were racing full blast to get a lap back. The free pass isn’t the most popular of rules, but it wasn’t an unreasonable response to an eye-opening incident for a dangerous sport that should do everything possible to ensure the safety of the participants. As Dario Franchitti well demonstrated at the Nationwide race last Saturday, a disabled car sitting still anywhere near or on a racetrack is not a desirable thing.

I didn’t initially have a problem with the G-W-C rule, until I saw that it was being enforced with blind devotion. On the last lap of a race, a similar situation as the Jarrett or Franchitti incidents may not even bring out a yellow flag.

NASCAR has spent the last four years attempting to placate people who throw trash and coolers in the name of green flag finishes. The brass still gets very uptight and nervous over the possibility of a race ending under yellow.

This last Talladega race was yet another example. While Michael McDowell was spinning on the white flag lap, the flag stand official looked on impassively. Meanwhile, spotters were likely telling drivers one of two things, depending on where their driver was on the track: “wreck on the frontstretch”, or “no caution, keep going, keep going”. Imagine 30 drivers all getting a different message what to do, especially at a plate race. Obviously, that is a recipe for chaos.

Of course a multi-car wreck followed McDowell’s caution-free spin. As Buford T. Justis would say, “noooo s***”.

Not throwing a yellow flag when a car is spinning on the frontstretch, especially in a restrictor plate race, isn’t any smarter than what Kevin Lepage did. Maybe the officials could issue their own apology to the drivers and teams and fans. And Lepage only caused one dangerous crash. NASCAR officials with their arms firmly folded on the last lap have caused at least a half a dozen scary moments in the last two seasons.

Here is a list of such incidents in 2006 and 2007:

Indianapolis, August 2006: Greg Biffle and Robby Gordon made contact on the last lap and spun into the wall, creating a large cloud of smoke. Despite that Jimmie Johnson was three seconds ahead of Matt Kenseth and cruising towards an easy win, the caution flag was not thrown. In the confusion, Kasey Kahne was tagged and hit the wall so hard his car went airborne.

Watkins Glen, August 2006: Just one week after Kasey Kahne was victimized by a delayed flag, it happened again. Shortly after Casey Mears stalled and was immobile, and three cars passed him before the caution flew, Ryan Newman spun and Carl Edwards was in the grass. Kasey Kahne crashed again amidst the chaos.

(Kasey Kahne almost missed the Chase in 2006 because of these two incidents despite having six wins, by the way, causing NASCAR to consider rethinking the points system for the billionth time rather than look at a root cause for a change.)

Atlanta, October 2006: Clint Bowyer’s car crashed into the wall on the last lap and was damaged beyond repair, repeatedly turning into the wall. With sparks flying and Bowyer’s car unable to get off the track, many cars passed by him at full speed. No caution was thrown.

Daytona, February 2007: In a green-white-checkered finish, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth went sideways. Greg Biffle and David Gilliland were spinning into the grass and back onto the track. Jeff Gordon was smashed into the wall. Casey Mears went around. Clint Bowyer was upside down and on fire. Despite the fact that most of the field was behind the huge wreck, no caution was thrown until after Kevin Harvick and Mark Martin crossed the finish line.

Martinsville, October 2007: In a green-white-checkered finish, David Ragan spins out and is stalled in turn one on the second to last lap. The race stays green as Ragan’s car is stuck in the middle of the track with several cars passing him, and only as the leaders cross the finish line does the caution flag wave.

Talladega, April 2008: On the last lap of the race, Michael McDowell spun out at the start-finish line. The caution flag did not fly. With drivers not knowing whether to speed up or slow down, a multi-car wreck took place, and it still took several seconds before the caution flag finally waved and Kyle Busch was declared the winner.

Those are six incidents…six too many…in just the last two seasons where a caution flag was delayed or not thrown at all on the last lap or on a G-W-C finish, despite a situation on the track that clearly warranted it. And in at least three of those incidents the delay of the yellow flag caused other drivers to crash.

Most of the time, the race ends under caution anyway. What is NASCAR buying?

NASCAR perpetuates many things that place a higher premium on “excitement” than real competition (restrictor plates, for example). It is an accepted principle among members of NASCAR’s leadership that racing just isn’t very exciting and it needs their help to be so. But when the quest for “excitement” overrides even driver safety, it’s time for someone’s judgment to come into question.

NASCAR still has it in the back of their minds that finishing a race under yellow will enrage race fans and subsequently create more work for cleanup crews. So what. How that overrides the possibility of injuring or killing a driver in a chaotic, caution flag-free last lap incident escapes me.

Welcome to Kurt’s Shorts At Richmond: Free Parking!

  • I visited Richmond last season courtesy of the largesse of Bob Henry. Richmond does have free parking, but as with most tracks it’s a real bear getting out. I swore I would never come back after getting lost for an hour looking for an I-95 sign, but I’ll probably go back there someday.
  • I predict that if Dale Earnhardt, Jr. does not win this week, he will have to call a press conference to answer how in the world that could be happening. Stay tuned.
  • If Tony Stewart really does join with Haas/CNC, at least we’ll know who’s driving the No. 70 car.
  • All week long, I have been reading articles about how great the Talladega race was, how exciting, better than ever with the new car, etc. Maybe it was an exciting race in a train wreck kind of way, but now that the dust has cleared, look at the results: Juan Pablo Montoya 2nd; David Ragan 4th; Brian Vickers 5th; Travis Kvapil 6th; Robby Gordon 11th. And 38th through 41st? Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards, and Matt Kenseth. So is the key to a good finish at Dega the driver’s grasp of the draft? Nope. Just stay out of the big one. Sorry Danny, but that ain’t racin’ by any definition I can think of.

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Beyond the Cockpit: Alexis DeJoria On The 300 mph Women of the NHRA
A Swan’s Broken Wings Equal NASCAR’s Next Concern?
Thinkin’ Out Loud – The Off Week Season Review
Pace Laps: Swan Racing’s Future, Fast Females and Dropping Out
Sprint Cup Series Facilities Can Build Upon Fan Experience by Looking to Their Roots
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Mike in NH
05/02/2008 12:25 PM
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You make some good points here, Kurt, but think on this one: people were talking about the exciting Daytona 500 finish last year all season (and into the off-season, too), while most of us forgot about wreck. That’s why NASCAR keeps its arms crossed on the last lap half the time. I’m sure the drivers are aware of that, and regardless of whether the flag gets thrown, their minds (and those of their spotters) should not be on what flag is out, but on avoiding the wreck. Don’t assume the yellow is out at that point of the race just because there’s a crash. I’m pretty sure the controversy about throwing the flag too late at the end of the race has been around as long as NASCAR is, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

On Tony Stewart, at least changing from a 20 to a 70 would be fairly easy on the graphics design guys, eh? And on tattoo removers too! Definitely easier than adding a second 8 on, that’s for sure..

On Talladega: you could look at it another way: the new cars with the plates on them are the ultimate equalizers, and so the guys you don’t usually see up front get a shot at a win. But I’m with what I heard Tony say earlier in the week: now that we have a new car, let’s try doing some testing at ‘dega and Daytona without the plates and see if we can safely open things up again.

Marshall
05/02/2008 04:57 PM
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NA$CAR’s stupid, “Don’t throw the yellow” mentality has created a lot of confusion and endangered the lives and careers of many of the drivers. Using this unfair practice, they cheated Mark Martin out of winning the Daytona 500 just like they cheated him out of winning the championship in 1990. Martin is a much better racer that any other champion or Daytona 500 winner.

Mike, as for letting an underdog have a chance at winning at Talladega, the place has always been a haven for the unlikely underdog to win. Just ask Richard Brickhouse, Pete Hamilton, Dick Brooks, James Hylton, Lennie Pond, Dave Marcis, Ron Bouchard, Bobby Hillin, Jr., Phil Parsons, Bobby Hamilton, Ken Schrader, or Jimmy Spenser.

Mike in NH
05/02/2008 05:47 PM
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Marshall, that’s true about the underdog at ‘Dega, but (and I don’t have the stats to follow this up) I wonder how that compares with unlikely winners at other tracks? Is it really that there are more unlikely winners at ‘Dega, or does it just seem that way? And how does it compare with Daytona, the other superspeedway? Is it ‘dega or superspeedway racing itself that leads to more underdogs winning? Because if I recall I think that Daytona has had its share of unlikely winners, too..

Based on who is on your list of unlikely Talladega winners, I don’t think throwing the flag or not or using the restrictor plate or not is going to make a difference in the “unlikely winner” category.

I can’t buy into the idea that NASCAR “cheated” Mark Martin twice over though. That’s because that would bring NASCAR down to the level of pro wrestling, with the home office determining the winners, and then I’d stop watching. I just don’t buy into the idea that that is happening – actually, I’m sure they would have loved having Mark Martin win at Daytona last year, it would have been a great story.

Marc
05/03/2008 08:42 PM
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Raced for nearly 50 years without the rule to not race to the caution. Implemented the rule because Dale Jarrett nearly got himself killed pulling the steering wheel off with cars still whizzing by. New rule, race to the caution. Stay in the car until all cars take the yellow.

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