Road course racing is a different animal from oval track racing, and the use of caution flags couldn’t be any different between the two configurations. While NASCAR runs a multitude of races on ovals every year, they only run a handful of road course races. And, while they’ve been doing them for several decades, the last few years it has seemed as though they’ve forgotten the proper use of the local caution. Fortunately for the competitors and the fans this weekend at Infineon, it appeared as though the folks in the flag stand and in race control remembered that a car off track or spun and stopped is not an imminent threat to the entire race and, given the chance, is often able to get back into the event without having to stop the entire race.
Local caution flags are utilized to warn competitors when a car is off course or has spun and is potentially impeding the race in a specific area of the race track, without putting the entire field and track under caution conditions. It affords the car that is out of shape the chance to get back underway, while it doesn’t penalize the leaders of the race or compromise the race strategy of different race teams. Over the past few years, it seemed that whenever someone spun during a road course race the caution flag flew and the entire field was brought under caution.
It was that scenario that put the field under caution last year, which ultimately cost Marcos Ambrose the race at Infineon. This year, that problem did not seem to exist. There were certainly full course caution flags, five of them to be exact, but there were several instances of cars going off course and stopping before regrouping and rejoining the race and a local yellow was all that was displayed. The end result was a race that saw four or five different race strategies play out, with an amount of passing and position swapping that was outstanding for full-bodied stock cars on a road course.
Fans have been complaining for years about the number of caution flags that fly and mysterious yellows that seem to plague NASCAR races without substantial proof that a situation exists on the race track that warrants a caution. This weekend it seemed that the sanctioning body, and ultimately the flagman, got it right and only used the full course flag when the situation truly deserved to have the entire field put behind the pace car while cars or debris was removed that was going to have a dramatic impact on the race.
Hopefully the folks calling the shots from the race control booth on coming weekends will realize that letting scenarios play out a little longer before throwing a caution, rather than putting out the caution immediately every time a car spins, is good for the race. Such a practice will not inherently put competitors in imminent danger just because a car gets out of shape and stops somewhere out of the racing groove. During the Coca-Cola 600 this year, there were at least two scenarios where a car spun into the infield grass on the front straight. The caution flag immediately flew, even though the driver regained control and could have easily rejoined the race without a negative impact to anyone.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, the lack of a caution at the end of the race was criticized because of supposed debris left on the track from Jeff Burton spinning in the middle of the field. Ultimately, as it played out, the no caution turned out to be a good call and should have been implemented earlier in the race, rather than the knee jerk cautions for instances like Kyle Busch spinning out of turn four and going through the front straight infield.
This weekend we saw Robby Gordon slide out of the groove almost to the tire barrier on the outside of the track, but the caution flag did not fly, even though it took him roughly 45 seconds to get his car refired and rolling again. At the end of the day it was exactly how the situation should have been handled and it did not negatively impact the race.
Here’s hoping that, as the schedule moves forward, the people who review the way races are called will realize that they got it right again this weekend, and will continue to move toward a more judicious use of full course cautions, both on road courses and on oval tracks across the schedules of all of their racing series.
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