Denny Hamlin’s words from victory lane at Michigan International Speedway only confirmed what most cynics and conspiracy theorists had been thinking for much of the past few seasons. The race winner said that he fully expected NASCAR to look for a reason to throw a caution late in the event (which they did on lap 183 of 200 for an insignificant piece of debris), which eradicated the 10 or so second lead he had accumulated over the 80-lap green-flag run. Hamlin said that he understood why this kind of thing seemed to happen almost every week, because his, other drivers’ and NASCAR’s job was to make the show entertaining for the fans.
The outcry from the media was deafening. How could NASCAR expect fans to respect and yearn for the competition that races brought, when the outcomes were highly influenced by the interests of the governing body? But NASCAR’s finding an excuse to throw cautions to break up long green-flag runs and tighten up the field late in the races is nothing new. The tactic is an old trick that promoters from big-league racing to bullring short tracks have been using for a long time. And had not this same group of dissenters been complaining for several years about the declining competition and lack of excitement?
Racing purists argue that not all races have to end up being exciting and the sport should rely on its competition (and not decisions by its officials mid-race) to provide such excitement. A late-race debris caution “just to shake things up” is comparable to baseball officials moving the fences in after the sixth inning with a team leading 8-2, just to see if the other team could club a few homers and even up the score. More exciting for the fans, right? That would never stand in the Majors.
And the tune seems to have changed in NASCAR. This season more than any in recent years, NASCAR’s cell of leaders has been hashing out and hatching plans to try and negate some of the sport’s shortcomings so vehemently expounded upon by a frustrated and jaded fan and media base. Not the least of these changes has been the seemingly rapid protocol change in the waving of the caution flag.
NASCAR apparently has a new approach to deciding when to slow the field and they are beginning to find the right balance.
Saturday night at Daytona, the combination of ill-handling racecars on a 31-year-old track surface, bigger restrictor-plate openings (also implemented after fan and driver complaints) and the nature of plate racing itself meant that an exciting story would write itself in the Coke Zero 400. A 19-car crash on lap 149 of the 160-lap race, followed by another three-car crash and caution period just prior to the field taking the white flag set the stage for an inevitable, exciting dash for the checkered flag.
After Kevin Harvick won the 2010 Bud Shootout because of a caution that came out on the white-flag lap of a green-white-checkered sequence, NASCAR responded to fan criticism and added the possibility of up to three green-white-checkered flags to end a race. After Sprint Cup drivers needed all three GWCs to finish the Daytona 500 one week later, media, drivers and fans immediately started claiming in Goldilocks fashion that three were too many. What was the right choice? What would the right balance end up being?
As Clint Bowyer led the 20-or-so cars left in Saturday’s race to the green flag on lap 165, positions changed feverishly. Bowyer, who stated on TV prior to the race that he wanted more than anything to become the last victor on Daytona’s soon-to-be-repaved surface, tried to protect his lead, but was shuffled to the “sucker hole” in the middle lane of the pack. As he tried desperately to find a spot in line, contact with David Reutimann’s No. 00 Toyota on the white flag sent Bowyer’s No. 33 Cheerios Chevy spinning through the grass. NASCAR could have used blind judgment and thrown a caution for a spinning car, but after quickly deciding that he had spun out of the way of anyone and also did not hit anything or need immediate assistance, they allowed the race to continue. Later in the lap, as the leaders worked through the tri-oval, Kurt Busch (among others) tangled and spun. Regardless, NASCAR still left out the green for Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon to try and mount a charge past eventual winner Harvick.
The same held true in Friday’s Subway Jalapeño 250 presented by Coca-Cola. While conspiracy theorists felt that the fix was in to ensure Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s win in what he said would be his last race in the No. 3 car, NASCAR’s decisions on caution flags did not back up those suspicions. The lap 97 debris caution could have spelled doom for Junior, as he had a stranglehold on the lead and other contenders several positions behind him pitted for tires. But Junior held the Wrangler Chevy in the lead through the double-file restart, even as Joey Logano lifted his rear tires off the ground. Just as the leaders took the white flag, Trevor Bayne and Brendan Gaughan came together, sending Gaughan’s No. 62 Toyota into the wall and inflicting heavy damage on Bayne’s No. 99 as well. NASCAR, though, kept the green flag posted, allowing the field to fight for the finish.
In both races, NASCAR also was shy to throw the yellow for other almost spins or possible spatters of small debris this weekend. Even as the Nationwide race’s field became strung out into several single-file packs, the race only saw four cautions. Hopefully this new state of regulation will last. As talks heat up about changes to the Chase format, the use of ethanol in the near future and rules about Cup driver participation in the Nationwide Series, NASCAR seems to have continued the trend it started just over a year ago, when double-file restarts became a part of race-day vernacular (again, after pleas for more excitement), of trying to adhere to the wishes of its constituency and make for not only better, but consistently governed racing. Fans, drivers and media: it is our job to complain and pull and tug at NASCAR. But as soon as a race does not end the way you want it to because a caution flag does not fall, do not jump on the bandwagon and start whining about the porridge again.
Listen to Doug weekly on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury Speedshop racing show with host Captain Herb Emory each Saturday, from 12-1 p.m., on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and on wsbradio.com. Doug also hosts podcasts on ChaseElliott.com and BillElliott.com.