Race procedure is the manner in which an event is conducted. It includes… flagging… In addition to interpreting and applying these rules, NASCAR Officials are authorized to make such other determinations or take such other action as they determine to be necessary to promote the best interests of stock car racing, including but not limited to fairness and prompt finality of competition results. – Section 9-1, NASCAR Rulebook
Flipping through the rulebook, that’s about as specific a section you’ll get on what can cause a caution flag in this sport. Like all officiating in any form of race, dictating track conditions is tricky business – especially when a change to the final outcome is at stake. Any caution flag not thrown for a wreck which blocks the racetrack or a raging downpour can lead to serious criticism.
Especially when it’s thrown in the final 15 laps of a playoff race. Such a caution was the talk of the town Sunday, whether drivers and crew preferred to talk about it on the record or not. Let’s start with some facts:
Fact: There was a noticeable black piece of debris on the backstretch, which looked like a chunk of rubber. It was certainly more than a water bottle and easily seen by the naked eye.
Fact: It was reported by several drivers before the yellow flag was thrown.
Fact: The caution was the eighth such flag of the day. Four of them were for debris, tied for the second-most this season (only Dover had more) at a track known for follow-the-leader, parade-style racing during long green-flag runs.
Fact: It’s the second race in the four-race playoff there was a caution inside the last 25 laps for debris. In both situations, the leader had a seemingly insurmountable lead that wouldn’t have been overcome without a mechanical problem or some sort of freak incident on the track.
Everything else beyond that is pure speculation and opinion as to whether NASCAR should have thrown the yellow. But there’s a strong argument bunching up the field was in the sport’s best interest in a snooze-inducing race, one where Jimmie Johnson was putting a whoopin’ on the competition and hitting cruise control en route to taking over the point lead unchallenged.
As you might expect, that chunk of rubber caused comfort to turn to concern, as the No. 48 wound up under attack by a handful of challengers right on his bumper for a double-file restart. With the supercharged playoff atmosphere, everyone fought for everything they could get after the field restarted with just 12 laps to go. That led to aggression the likes of which we hadn’t seen in the first 450 miles; and like the old saying goes, “Cautions breed cautions.” When the smoke cleared, no less than four Chasers were involved in two wrecks which all but ended their chances for the title, part of a mess in which 11 total cars got a piece of the wall or another competitor. The second one was so severe, most of turn 1 got blocked, forcing a nearly 22-minute red flag for track crews to clean up the mess. A race that looked nearly over by 7:00 ET instead lasted until 7:30, digging into ABC’s prime-time schedule before ending just before its four-hour mark.
When the smoke cleared, Johnson wound up unnerved by the late-race rubbing – he won by 1.6 seconds over Jeff Gordon – but there were certainly plenty of frustrated drivers and crews staring at their crumpled sheet metal afterwards. It’s the type of circumstances that provide a rare forum nowadays in NASCAR, one where the political correctness is dropped for raw emotion from a day gone bad.
And trust me, people had plenty to say.
“It was kind of a strange day there at the end of the race,” crew chief Pat Tryson said, whose driver Kurt Busch fueled the first wreck after smacking the wall on a lap 239 restart, collecting Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle in a wreck that knocked them both out of the top 10. “It’s just the way that these races seem to go. (NASCAR) seems to throw cautions during the race, it is what it is. We got jumbled up.”
Kahne wasn’t quite as forgiving. After wreck No. 1 threw him back in the pack, just eight laps later his car was junked after getting caught up in an eight-car melee that destroyed every one of Richard Petty Motorsports’ four cars.
“NASCAR threw a debris caution for no debris,” the frustrated Kahne said. “We had a bad race to get a caution to put a show on for the fans.”
That wreck also involved Dale Earnhardt Jr., hurt the most by the two late-race debris calls in the Chase. At New Hampshire, he had a top-five run in the bag before the yellow and subsequent restart, where he got tagged by David Reutimann and knocked out of the race. This time, it was Elliott Sadler hitting the back bumper of the No. 88, turning a battle for a top-10 finish into one where he was simply trying to keep his composure during what’s been a trying season.
“We are doing whatever we can to stay positive,” he said in refusing to acknowledge the issue in his only public comments. “We had a top-10 car today, and it’s unfortunate that a lot of good cars got tore up there at the end.”
Others couldn’t be quite so cheery. For Biffle, his momentum from a near-win at Kansas got torn away in little more than the blink of an eye.
Or a piece of… whatever.
“It probably took us out of the hunt,” he said of his future championship chances. “You know, it’s not over ’til it’s over, but that really hurt us.”
So in a cruel irony, NASCAR’s call to remove debris – done in the interests of safety – instead caused carnage far worse than the off chance someone hit that debris and cut down a tire. Yet for everyone’s loss, keep in mind there’s someone else’s gain. You won’t see David Ragan complaining about a late-race yellow: he used the last three restarts to turn a 15th-place car to a seventh-place run at the finish. John Andretti won’t complain to you, either; he had a car barely keeping pace that wound up in 19th, on the lead lap, due to the lucky way in which the cautions fell.
So why call out a caution for debris in the first place? The first thing officials will tell you with debris is that it’s important to minimize risk in order to keep their drivers safe. No one wants an undetected hazard to lead to serious injury, and sometimes it’s obvious: how can you avoid a metal bumper lying in the middle of a track, for example? Yet not every situation is so clear-cut, and being picky has its consequences: how small can you go before it crosses the line between safety and pure manipulation?
“It’s frustrating when you’re leading and pulling away and they say debris caution,” Juan Pablo Montoya admitted after the race. “It could be simple. It could be a screw.
“In Bristol, I had a flat tire from a washer, you know, with 20 laps to go. What can you do? Nothing. It is what it is. So I don’t know.”
It’s the old debate of whether to be safe than sorry; but in a subjective situation like this one, it’s always an easier decision to make when the entertainment factor of making that call shoots through the roof. That’s why any movement for change would actually come with you, the fans, and whether you feel shaken or stirred enough to take issue with these choices that err on the side of caution. Because in the beginning of this column, we left out two simple facts:
Fact: The last 15 laps were the most exciting of the race.
Fact: The loudest cheering from the grandstands came during that time.
What’s interesting is in both situations – New Hampshire and California – the leader at the time of the debris held on to win the race. But what if that doesn’t happen at another race down the stretch, and those points win or lose the title?
It’ll be interesting to see the reaction then. But one thing’s for sure: when you’re leaving the track talking about the debris more than the racing itself, Auto Club Speedway has its share of work to do in order to hold everyone’s interest.
Tom Bowles is now on Twitter! Click HERE to become a follower… even though he’s still learning how to use it (be patient on that one!)