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Side By Side: Does NASCAR Intentionally Throw Debris Cautions?

Editor’s Note: The following is a special edition of Frontstretch’s Side by Side. Occasionally throughout the season, two of your favorite Frontstretch writers will duke it out in a debate concerning one of NASCAR’s biggest stories. Don’t let us be the only ones to speak our minds, though… be sure to read both sides and let us know what you think about the situation in the comment section below!

Today’s Question: With a record breaking amount of yellow flags, is NASCAR intentionally throwing cautions for debris to make the racing more entertaining?

The Fix Is Not In
by Phil Allaway

I’m not even going to attempt to claim that there hasn’t been a significant increase in the number of debris cautions in the Cup Series over the past 20 years. We’ve had articles on Frontstretch in the past that have talked exclusively about this trend. Our “Fearless Leader” wrote a piece on it last year, and Jeff Meyer has covered the issue as well.

However, the idea that NASCAR would throw random, entertainment-based caution flags and call them debris cautions is ludicrous at best. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t look into the whole thing, but the evidence to back things up just doesn’t fly.

In the past, drawing a caution in general used to be a lot more difficult. We’ll use the 1986 First Union 400 at North Wilkesboro as an example. Trevor Boys, driving the No. 6 Chevrolet for D.K. Ulrich, hit the wall in turn 4, crossed the track and stalled at the entrance of pit road. No caution was thrown here despite the fact that a wrecker was actually dispatched to tow the “No. 6 away.” In the infamous 1995 Goody’s 500 at Bristol, there was a piece of metal debris on the backstretch with 30 or so laps to go. ESPN showed this debris on air. No yellow was thrown, presumably because it was off the line. Also, they presumably assumed that throwing the caution could have negatively affected the race.

But have we already forgotten NASCAR’s re-dedication to safety since 2001? Ever since then, there has been a lot more debris cautions. It could be argued that NASCAR doesn’t want someone to get hurt because of running something over, and there have been plenty of crashes in the past that have been caused by debris. For example, Rusty Wallace crashed at Bristol in 1998 due to running over a piece of metal from Ricky Rudd’s car. However, in that case, Wallace wrecked before the caution could even be thrown for that debris. As a result, NASCAR doesn’t really want to take chances. Also of note, with most pieces of debris, there is significant deliberation between NASCAR officials in Race Control as to whether to put out cautions at all.

Also of note, what is considered enough to warrant a debris caution now is a lot smaller. It used to be that fairly substantial pieces of metal were required to draw debris cautions, or significant oiling down of the track. Nowadays, cautions are thrown for blown tires, with the only debris on track being the tire shards. Or, in the case of Jason Leffler in the Nationwide race at Richmond, cautions are thrown because someone got nervous. Last year at Loudon, officials were debating whether to throw a caution to retrieve a bolt on the track. This is something that might not be able to be picked up by the cameras of NASCAR’s TV partners, but something that NASCAR feels is dangerous enough to necessitate cautions.

NASCAR will admit openly that sometimes they will acknowledge debris on track, but not throw cautions because it would interrupt the flow of the race. An example of this is when debris is spotted during a round of green-flag pit stops. NASCAR will let the debris stay there until the stops are completed, then throw the caution so that teams aren’t inconvenienced. This angers some people who claim that if you’re going to throw a yellow for debris, it must be thrown as quick as possible. The tire in the quad-oval grass at Atlanta last year is an example. The only reason that the yellow was thrown there during the round of pit stops instead of afterwards was that one of Marcos Ambrose‘s crew ran out into the grass to retrieve the tire under green.

With all the issues that NASCAR has these days, I really do not think that they would want to have the integrity of their races brought into question. I think that NASCAR could definitely help themselves out here, though, by helping to guide the TV cameras towards the debris in these situations and notifying the broadcast booth exactly what the debris is when the yellow is thrown. In addition, maybe the TV partners could (if they don’t already do) have a few people sit in with NASCAR’s spotters so fans can see where NASCAR gets these cautions from. Also, they should make it clear to teams, drivers, and fans just what can draw a debris caution. Hopefully, with these changes, the rumors about NASCAR “fixing” races can go away once and for all.

Blatant Interference of a Sporting Event
by Bryan Davis Keith

Watching from the press box at Richmond International Raceway a few weeks ago, I was treated to one of the biggest smackdowns the Cup Series has seen in recent memory, with Kyle Busch mercilessly putting car after car a lap down. He was making a stinker of the race and putting on a show of his own.

Cracking the top 10, Busch then put ninth-place Jimmie Johnson down a lap. “Here comes a debris caution,” I laughingly chuckled. Only thing is, one did come out. The Chase’s off-brand version of “four-time” was back on the lead lap, and Busch saw the immense lead he had over absolutely everyone erased for debris that no one seemed to be able to find. Over 20 cars took advantage of the wave-around rule, and who could blame them? They knew from the second NASCAR put out the yellow and saved Johnson’s neck that the officials were ready to intervene, to stop Busch’s rampage and to bunch the field back up. And low and behold, not long after the next restart, another debris caution for an object that posed a tremendous threat to the 3,400-pound machines on the track (an empty plastic bottle, the horror) put all 20-plus cars that had just taken wave-arounds back on the lead lap.

It was utter, blatant interference with a sporting event, a backhand to Busch and the No. 18 team that had the entire field embarrassed and running for cover. Thankfully, Busch managed to find his way back up front to score the “W” later that Saturday night, but the damage was already done; NASCAR had intentionally manipulated one of its races. Things were no better at Darlington, where despite episodes that saw a number of drivers hit the wall but still able to drive straight and continue, the yellow just had to come out.

This caution-happy NASCAR, willing to use any excuse to throw the yellow to bunch up the field, is well-documented; Frontstretch‘s own Jeff Meyer tabulated just last season how the number of yellow flags for the ever-ambiguous debris caution has skyrocketed in the last decade. Safety pundits will undoubtedly scream that this is a necessity, but come on; if debris is something that TV cameras and 100,000 fans sitting around a track can’t see, does it really pose that much of a danger to a car that’s frankly safer than what most fans drove to the track?

Not really, but that’s beside the point (if you want to see it proven, check out any of the ARCA races run this season. Their flagmen know how to call a race, and their on-track product shines for it). Because NASCAR isn’t throwing copious amounts of yellows for the sake of preventing wrecks, they’re throwing them because suddenly their snake oil isn’t selling. Fans certainly are frustrated with the racing, but bunching up the field with phony yellows isn’t fixing the problem.

The problem is the sport has become regulated to the point that it can’t operate as a sport anymore. Just look at Darlington, where despite the debris cautions there were long green-flag runs… that after 20 laps produced next to no passing. That’s a product of an exclusive tire provider having no solution for a track except to put rocks on wheels and slap Eagle labels on them. That’s a product of a wood block of a race car that wasn’t extensively tested before it became the only legal racecar in the Cup ranks. That’s a product of the haves being locked in and the have-nots locked out, because there’s no way to go test and figure out how to take down those currently at the top. That’s a product of having too much parity and no room for competitors to get innovative and create the legends that made the sport so popular in the first place.

So is NASCAR using the yellow flag deliberately to write the story of its own shows? You bet they are. They have no choice. With the sport governed by a bunch of hard-headed imbeciles who don’t know how to admit they’ve screwed up royally over the last decade, they’re not about to go open testing back up. They’re not about to get rid of the CoT. They’re not about to invite someone to give Goodyear the competitive kick in the ass they need.

So they’re going to continue to bunch up the field, stopping races in the name of show, hoping that just maybe closing the gap on the track will somehow allow the other drivers in the field to challenge the haves at the front. Because frankly, that’s the only way anyone’s going to catch those who have become staples at the front of the Cup field as much because of the sanctioning body as anything else.

NASCAR could easily dispel this by having their broadcast partners show debris every time the yellow flies for it, but alas, they don’t. Unlike the wrecks, which are shown from 10 different angles and made into TV ads by night’s end. This conspiracy theory has the simplest of simple solutions, and yet NASCAR still hasn’t addressed it.

In short, there’s something to it. NASCAR made a commitment this year to turn back the clock to “boys, have at it” racing. What they seem to think that the fans have forgotten though, is that along with all the fighting and beating and banging of the old days, there were also races where Richard Petty did lap the field, where the leaders were in their own zip code.

They reneged on that the second that Kyle Busch threatened to do the same at RIR. If that mess in Virginia doesn’t scream intentional to you, you’ve had too much Kool-Aid for me to help.

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