The Frontstretch: Phantom Cautions: Nothing New To NASCAR by Vito Pugliese -- Monday April 30, 2007

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Phantom Cautions: Nothing New To NASCAR

The Voice Of Vito · Vito Pugliese · Monday April 30, 2007


The NASCAR topic of choice lately, pointed out most recently by Tony Stewart, has been the rash of debris-related “Phantom Cautions” that have become as synonymous with the sport as “Restrictor Plate” or “Lucky Dog.” While a caution flag for debris is a legitimate reason to throw the yellow flag, it is cause for concern when the multitude of cameras that FOX, TNT, and ESPN bring to the track each week can't seem to locate where the debris actually is. The trucks that go out and pick up that debris are usually bright red or white…so it shouldn't be THAT hard to spot where they're headed. While the questionable caution and its use has certainly been an issue as of late, I got to thinking; why is this just now becoming such a big deal?

NASCAR’s tendency to wave the yellow flag has become so well known, other racing series jokingly refer to caution flags thrown for the sake of keeping the fans awake as "NASCAR Cautions". These timely yellow flags have always served a purpose, however; they bunch up the field, allowing teams to both regroup and make significant changes to their cars during pit stops to help make for a more entertaining finish. It has been going on since the inception of the sport to a lesser degree, but only recently has it begun to become an issue. Some of that has come from the drivers themselves; a few years ago, many of the older veterans on the circuit began to bemoan the absence of green flag racing as a result of these debris yellows. A typical green flag run in the old days might last 45-60 laps, forcing drivers to make green flag pit stops; now, the trend appears to be headed in the other direction, with a green flag run lasting all of 25 laps. That never plays into the hands or the setups of drivers who were accustomed to actually racing, not riding around behind the pace car at 65 MPH. Many of the "old school" drivers did not and still can’t appreciate this policy, as people like Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin couldn't understand why running more than half a fuel run was suddenly a thing of the past. Martin remembered a time when seeing a starter or another piece of a race car lying on the track would cause no caution to fly to disturb the race.

The issue has continued to come to a head lately due to the increased popularity and therefore scrutiny of the series. Of course, Tony Stewart was taken to the woodshed this week for accusing NASCAR for manipulating the finishes of races, the latest veteran to state that he didn't think that NASCAR plays fair; in fact, he accused them of failing to call a fair race all year. Jim Hunter issued a rebuke of Stewart as a result of his actions, but interestingly enough, NASCAR did not ever really come out and deny Stewart's accusation about yellow flags. That’s probably because they know in one aspect or another, Stewart is right; with NASCAR making an effort to attract new fans and win over traditional "stick & ball" viewers, the term "sport" has been used less frequently in place of the word “entertainment.” That term brings with it some inherent negative connotations, the most popular being references to WWE wrestling with scripted scenarios and outcomes. It’s hard not to make that comparison in this situation, because with debris cautions, one would think that if there was a caution for something, we'd see where it was or at least what it was. Mike Joy of FOX Sports implores the fact that if they can find the debris, they'll show it; but more often then not, it’s nowhere to be found, leaving everyone scratching their heads and conspiracy theorists with the ammo they need.

Well, let the conspiracy theorists have their 15 minutes of fame; they’re not stumbling upon a new concept. Since this debris caution concept is typically regarded as something that’s happened in NASCAR since the beginning of time, why all the fuss over it now? Is it because of who has been winning most of the races? Does one driver in particular seem to benefit from these cautions? Because let's be honest: when there aren't any cautions and the field gets strung out with a dominant car, it can get ridiculously boring. One of the knocks against NASCAR in the 80's and early 90's was follow-the-leader parade type racing that was common at the bigger tracks. It’s just like the complaining that’s happened at Talladega and Daytona, in my view; NASCAR introduced restrictor plates to bunch of the field on Superspeedways, and fans complain about the pack racing with the drivers having little control over the cars. However, the ratings for these races are always high, and they sell a good number of tickets. Why? Because the action is always close, competitive and you never know how one of these races will end, though it usually involves a massive 20-car pile up at some point. That’s just the consequences that come at the cost of excitement; with debris cautions, you have a similar ideal being put into play.

NASCAR has its tracks on the circuit that usually provide less than exciting races: New Hampshire, Michigan, California, Chicago, and Las Vegas. Some would argue that the road courses have also been rather dry as of late. Since NASCAR is in the business of entertainment and promotion and part of its strategy is to create close finishes, is it really so horrible that they set the stage for a competitive finish now and then, especially at those tracks listed above? That was the idea behind the green-white-checker rule that causes races to go into overtime, and many fans applauded. In truth, no one wants to blow $120 on a ticket to see the race decided 5 laps from the finish by a backmarker's folly. Debris cautions could be considered an extension of that, giving competitors a chance to adjust their cars, get a drink, and well…run some commercials. Granted, they do that already all day long, but at least it wouldn't be during competition.

While I do not want to see racing garner a stigma like wrestling, NASCAR has over the last 60 years found a way to provide great entertainment, while positioning itself among the NFL and MLB as America's national pastimes. Part of that has been from time to time erring on the side of "safety" and throwing a caution. Be it for a hot dog wrapper or something out of Robby Gordon's car, it is something they do and have been doing for decades. Before the internet and before cable TV, there was a NASCAR Yellow. There's a reason why Formula 1 racing isn't very popular in this country, and it has to do with the 10-second finishing intervals between drivers. That lack of competition drove Juan Pablo Montoya to drive a Mopar, not a McLaren, so let's be honest with ourselves and stop acting like it's something we've never seen before. Jacques DeBris has been competing in our sport for a LONG time…it’s only now that the media has decided to harp on it and forced things into the public eye.

_Have you seen the all new Frontstretch newsletter yet? If you haven’t, well, you’re missing out … today, Sonya Grady told us how NASCAR censorship is ruining the sport we know and love, and trivia held the answer to the only drivers who’ve started every race on Richmond’s current 3/4 mile configuration. Tired of being left on the sidelines? Well, click here to sign up today!

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Today on the Frontstretch:
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Beyond the Cockpit: Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. on Growing Up Racing and Owner Loyalties
The Frontstretch Five: Flaws Exposed In the New Chase So Far
NASCAR Writer Power Rankings: Top 15 After Darlington
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©2000 - 2008 Vito Pugliese and Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!

05/01/2007 06:14 AM

Then NASCAR should admit what it is doing, thumb their noses at the fans who like real racing and consistent enforcement of the rules, and call the cautions “competition cautions.” Just do away with green flag pit stops altogether. That way they don’t have to waste money and time on training pit crews. Ordinary wrench turners can change tires and dump gas in the car like the trucks once did. It would be more honest, weed out those of us who don’t care for it, and identify it for what it really is…just a show and not worth the hard earned money spent.

FS Staff - Vito Pugliese
05/01/2007 06:24 AM


Not at all. My point was that from time to time, these cautions have come out, and it’s been a part of the sport for a LONG time. As of late it has gotten out of hand, throwing caution flags for hot dog wrappers, Gatorade cups, and rollbar padding at every opportunity. NASCAR should be a little more discriminatory when issuing these yellows.

Not every race needs to be the lead story on Sportscenter. There is nothing wrong with a few strung out finishes or gas mileage races.

I also find it funny how the topic dejour lately has been “restoring the integrity of the sport”. I have back issues of one of the older racing publications “Southern MotoRacing”. Many of them date to the late 70’s, and the “Professional Wrestling” tag was being used way back then too.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

05/01/2007 07:21 AM

My problem with it is it is happening way, way too much now. I know they’ve always done it (there always seemed to be one when Earnhardt Sr. was about to go a lap down) but now it seems like there are 3 or 4 per race. It just seems like another way they are trying to artificially create excitement (arguably, since watching cars run single file at 60mph under yellow half the race is hardly excitement), which is a trend that has really turned me off to NASCAR recently.

Fix the frickin’ racing on the track and stop trying to use gimmicks to keep my interest instead.

05/01/2007 09:53 AM

Well, if Na$car feels the tracks or cars can’t be “fixed” to allow a more competitive race, and the cautions need to be thrown to add “Drama” then they should just schedule the damn things, divide the race into quarters, and throw a caution at lap 75,150,275 and with 25 to go much like the 2 minute time out.

This would benefit Na$car
1) They could probably sell $pon$or$hip$ to each of the breaks.
2) $ell more add time.
This would benefit the racers and crews:
1) They would know they are coming and every one could plan on them much like they do at the All Star race.
2) It would tighten up the race, allow the back markers to make a change or 2 to their car.
3) The racers would know the break was coming up and would run harder to that yellow as opposed to ‘cruising’ thru those mid race laps.

The other benefit would be, this would be the only yellows in which a lap down car could get a lucky dog. That way Na$car would feel it necessary to throw the caution to let some favored driver back on the lead lap.

I think it would really add some excitement and legitimacy to this series that it seams to be lacking right now. Feel free to expand on this if you wish in an upcoming article.

West Fargo, North Dakota

05/01/2007 10:00 AM

“That lack of competition drove Juan Pablo Montoya to drive a Mopar, not a McLaren”.

No Vito, getting fired from the McLaren team after causing an eight car crash on the opening lap of the US Grand Prix (I know, I was there and it happened right in front of me) is why Montoya is in NASCAR, and not F1. Also, the fact that no F1 team would hire him for the 2007 season is the reason he’s in NASCAR.

Take off the rose colored glasses and look at the world without them once in a while.

05/01/2007 10:22 AM

I agree. From a racing driver’s perspective, racing a Cup car must be like driving a Mac truck when compared to a Formula One car. I know which one I’d rather race, all things being equal.

Personally I think Montoyo only went to NASCAR because;

* He wasn’t going to get another quality F1 seat

* Closer to home

* Far less pressure and day to day crap to deal with

* The IRL and Champ Car couldn’t pay him as well as NASCAR could in their current, depleted state

Also, Americans don’t watch F1 because most don’t care for road racing. Most of us grew up watching oval races on the tube or at the local short track. We need to acquire a taste for road racing to enjoy and accept it and most don’t try to do that. They just expect it to be like an oval race, which it will rarely be. Expecting close side by side racing all race in a road race is silly and only expected by those with no understanding of it. Conversely, close side by side action is what we grew up watching on the ovals and we expect it without a lot of bogus manipulation.

05/01/2007 01:41 PM

Just a quick point, and I’m not sure if this is part of what has brought us to the point of having so many questionable cautions thrown now. Compared to the old NASCAR circuit isn’t the current circuit crammed full of the same cookie-cutter tracks that for the most part do not provide for good racing? We’ve lost a good number of smaller tracks over the years in favor of the 1.5 milers, could this play into it at all? The caution numbers have grown in the last few years..while questionable cautions have always been around I think we all can agree that they have increased in the last few years by a good percentage.

FS Staff - Vito Pugliese
05/01/2007 02:15 PM

I’m not so sure there is less pressure and stuff to deal with on a day to day basis in Cup. The schedule is more than twice as long, he’s learning a new car, new drivers, and a new style of racing. Granted, he still runs into people, but at least now his car can keep going.

As for rose colored glasses, I prefer the blacked out Dirty Harry/Layne Staley I-Beams. Still the coolest sunglasses ever.

That was one of the points I was trying to make too, with the cookie cutter tracks that for the first 10 years produce single file racing, sometimes drastic measures need to be taken to generate some sort of interest. Check out the stands at California over Labor Day….assuming they pan out that far to show you the debacle that is West Coast attendance.

I’m not saying it’s great that they have been issuing questionable cautions, I’m just saying it’s been going on for a number of years; let’s not kid ourselves and pretend like it just started in 2007. I also think it makes a difference WHEN they happen. Throwing a yellow on lap 150 is a lot different than throwing one with 10 to go, just to set up a close finish.

05/01/2007 04:53 PM

I think if you ask any former F1 driver or anyone who has been involved in F1 and racing here in North America, I think they would confirm the worst pressure here is 1/100th what it is in F1.

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