I have to admit, I’m not big on conspiracy theories. I absolutely hate listening to people who leap past any sort of logical explanation or coincidental considerations and jump straight to the cries of “it was all fixed,” or claiming there was some sort of behind-the-scenes shenanigans going on. Not just in NASCAR, but anywhere. I much prefer those who take the time to sort out other possible explanations before immediately jumping to conclusions as to why things went down the way they did.
Yet as I sat watching the closing laps of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race on Sunday, I found myself getting more and more frustrated. Of the seven caution flags that flew over the course of the race, a grand total of five were for debris cautions. Five. The last four cautions of the race were all for debris, and all four of those flew with less than 50 laps remaining. They all seemed to fly at awfully convenient times and, in most cases, with no explanation at all.
Now, I have nothing against eventual race winner Brad Keselowski or dominant driver of the day Kurt Busch. I wasn’t cheering for or against either one of them and, honestly, I enjoyed watching the two race against one another. However, Keselowski would have not won the race without those cautions and Busch almost certainly would have had the victory had the race stayed green.
Now, in fairness, I do know the very last caution was for a very obvious and large piece of debris that came from Kyle Larson’s car. A caution was obviously needed since a piece of his bumper was flying into and around other cars and would have continued to if the race had stayed green. It was a safety hazard and it was on the racing surface. I understand that and had no issues with that caution.
The one previous to that – the debris caution that flew on lap 199 – seems to be the one that has everyone the most stirred up. Busch would have come back around to take the white flag and the yellow would have ended the race. However, the caution was flown before that and many viewers quickly cried out conspiracy because there was no obvious hazard on the track. Many quickly surmised that NASCAR was trying to keep Busch out of Victory Lane due to the recent domestic abuse allegations from an ex-girlfriend of his. Though he was cleared of any criminal charges in the case due to a lack of evidence, the allegations still left a black eye on the sport in the public eye, so why would NASCAR want him to win?
While I understand that thinking, I didn’t believe the call was a conspiracy to keep Busch out of Victory Lane so much as I thought it might be an attempt to bunch up the field again for an exciting finish it wouldn’t have otherwise had. I didn’t see any debris anywhere and the broadcast didn’t really seem to indicate that there was anything there. Again, I know I’m not alone in that because so many other fans were crying foul.
Except, upon further evaluation, the camera absolutely did show a little piece of debris towards the entrance to pit road and you can even hear Mike Joy saying “There it is” referencing what was being shown.
When I went back and watched that part of the broadcast, I wasn’t surprised that myself and so many others had missed it. First of all, the broadcast only spent a few seconds on it and the piece of debris was so small that if you’re like me and sometimes watch the broadcast but don’t necessarily listen or are focused on other things (social media, scanner, etc.), you wouldn’t have noticed anything out of the ordinary. I mean, look at that thing! It’s tiny!
Now, again, I’ve watched racing a while. I know that the racing surface at Auto Club Speedway is very wide, that a tiny piece of metal (if that’s what it was) can damage a racecar or cut a tire, and that the size of the object might be dwarfed a bit in comparison to the cars on the track and the track itself.
At the same time, if NASCAR is going to call a caution that late in the race, shouldn’t it be pretty obvious what it’s for? But more on that later.
Alright, so the last two cautions were at least semi-legitimate. What about the other three?
The first debris caution of the day flew on lap 88, and I don’t think anyone will fight me when I say that this one was legitimate as well. The caution flew while the broadcast was on commercial, but they came back and showed that AJ Allmendinger had a large piece of debris on his hood and that it had been on the racing surface when the caution flew. Allmendinger picked it up after the fact. Judging from its size, it looked like the caution was necessary. No objections on that one.
The other two – which, again, flew with not much time left in the race – I couldn’t find an explanation for. One debris caution flew on lap 154 and another flew on lap 186 and I could not for the life of me figure out why. NASCAR usually releases a report that describes what the cautions were for but in this case, the report doesn’t even specify where the debris was located on the track. It just says “debris” when typically, it will specify where the debris was located such as “debris frontstretch” or “debris turn 4.” I even re-watched those parts of the broadcast and no debris was ever shown or any explanation given as to what the cautions were for.
But these two cautions played a part in determining the race. They impacted the strategies of the race teams, changed the decisions of the drivers on pit road and helped determine the outcome of the race. Every caution flag in the race does, of course, but the closer they are to the end of the race, the more of a role the cautions play. What was setting up to become a fuel-mileage race was quickly laid to rest as caution after caution flew for things that – for the most part – we never saw.
Now, am I saying that these cautions were illegitimate, thrown for the purpose of bunching up the field in what had become a parade for whoever was the leader at the time? I don’t really know because we never saw. I don’t want to think that’s the case and I want to give NASCAR the benefit of the doubt. Did there just happen to be a piece of debris on the track that needed to be removed at the exact moments of the race that would have added a spice of life to the closing laps? I guess it’s certainly possible.
And I’m sure some of the fault in that lies with the television partners. NASCAR might be throwing the cautions for legitimate purposes and those of us who are at the mercy of the television have no other way of knowing otherwise. Heck, even when we’re at the track, we still have to rely on the television monitors. We usually can’t see a small piece of debris from the press box or are able to go on the racing surface ourselves as media. We might be able to see an official picking something up, but that’s about as far as that luxury exists (and the fans are usually even able to see that much). Even then, it’s difficult to judge the size of the debris or what it is they are picking up. Plus, when there are cars on pit road or teams talking about strategy on the radio, the focus tends to move there in terms of the storyline. And why shouldn’t it? It doesn’t seem to be too much to ask that we take the caution at face value rather than spending time looking around trying to figure out what it was for.
So what exactly is the television supposed to do differently? I know what you’re saying. “You just showed a picture of the television cameras showing the debris on that one caution flag! What are they supposed to do, draw a picture??”
Well… YES! Yes they are! Circle the stupid thing. Zoom in on it. Draw a smiley face around it for all I care. Make it so freaking obvious that no one – media, fan or otherwise – can question the legitimacy. Even if we don’t think a caution should have been called, at least we know it’s there. At that point, at least we’re asking “Why?” and not “What for?” That’s half the battle for much of these cautions. And considering that these television crews have a vested interest in maintaining the legitimacy of the sport – knowing full well that debris cautions are a point of contention among NASCAR fans right now – why leave any doubt? If that – whatever it is – in the picture is what the caution was for, make us notice it. With all their flashy graphics and personalities, is it so hard to get us to know what the caution that will help determine the outcome of the race is about?
At the same time, maybe the full blame isn’t on the television partners. Perhaps some of these cautions are for incidents that are so miniscule in nature that the television has trouble finding the debris. They aren’t able to find it with their own eyes and machinery, even though NASCAR usually says on the officials’ channel where the debris is. By the time someone goes out onto the track to get it, the broadcast has already moved on to the next story with the rest of us (pit strategy, restart lines, etc.)
Which leads me back to what I was mentioning earlier. If the caution is for something so insignificant that no one – not even the competitors – knows what it’s for, should they really be calling the caution for it? Especially so late in the race? The lap 186 caution is one that particularly hurt Matt Kenseth and I was listening to his radio when the caution came out. When his spotter told him the caution was out for debris, Kenseth responded by saying, “Yeah, I figured that was coming.”
When Busch was leading and the lap 199 caution flew, he responded by saying, simply, “WWE.”
When Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe were asked in their post-race press conferences if they saw the debris, both of them said they hadn’t. Yes, Keselowski said he didn’t remember much of the latter stages of the race due to the adrenaline rush he experienced during that time… but he remembered the Larson caution. “The bumper caution” as he kept calling it. And that was the last caution, when the adrenaline had to have been flowing more than for any of the other ones.
Which is my whole point. If it’s significant, then everyone notices it. There is no doubt, no question, and no conspiracy. If it’s obvious what the caution is for, no one doubts it or argues about it. It’s just an accepted part of the competition. Yes, I am aware that other competitors were telling NASCAR there was debris on the track leading to some of these cautions, but I tend to only take that with a grain of salt. That’s generally coming from competitors who need the caution and point out any little piece on the track as cause for concern. And NASCAR has been anything but consistent on which of those calls and concerns to listen to.
But that leads me to another issue that came to light in this race. I don’t know what at least two of the last four cautions of the race were for, and they were apparently for pieces of debris on the track that almost no one actually saw. Yet Greg Biffle spun coming to the white flag and NASCAR didn’t do anything. Yes, Biffle was able to get out of the way long before any cars got back around to him, and I completely agreed with the call to leave the race green. There is nothing worse than watching a race for 2- or 3-plus hours only to watch the cars finish at 60 mph under caution. It sucks. It can’t always be avoided, but it still sucks. So I was grateful that NASCAR let them race back to the green and believe it was the right decision.
Again, though, if they had thrown the caution, I would have at least understood why. A car was spinning. There was at least some traffic headed towards him when he did spin and the drivers likely weren’t willing to lift considering they were just one lap away from the checkered flag. No one would have doubted the “What?” They may have still questioned the need, but at least we wouldn’t have been looking around for the reason it was thrown in the first place.
My frustration is not the lack of the call. It’s the fact that there are at least two cautions that I can’t find an explanation for and yet, when it did have a reason to throw the caution, NASCAR decided not to. How in the name of all that is pure and good is debris with just over two laps left more of an on-track hazard than a spinning racecar? That late in the race, if there is a caution flag waving, there had better be an explanation and one that everyone knows and understands immediately as it happens. There should be absolutely no question!
Listen, I know NASCAR was probably in a no-win situation. If they would have let the cars go green in those latter portions of the race, the competition would have sucked. It would have been a mostly-single-file parade for whoever the leader wound up being, with their only saving grace being a fuel-mileage race. And even that doesn’t always keep people’s attention. So throwing a caution – even for mostly insignificant things – might seem like a better option than letting the race go green. I get that.
I know I’m probably the only person here that would support something like this, but if NASCAR really feels the need to throw cautions to bunch the field back up, then why not schedule them as competition cautions? Yes, yes, I know, I know, how dare I suggest such a sacrilegious change in tradition. That’s such a “kids these days” thing of me to say. But my defense to that is if NASCAR’s going to throw random cautions anyway (if that’s even what’s going on at all), at least be honest about it. Sure it takes the “randomness” out of it, but at least there is no conspiracy involved. It just is what it is. They don’t have to do something like that but it certainly doesn’t seem like coincidence that NASCAR is much quicker to throw a caution when the field is strung out than when the field is bunched up with one lap to go. I can’t help but think that plays into it.
I’m not a NASCAR detractor. In fact, I’m usually much quicker to defend them than I am to lambast the sport. I’ve held my ground in many arguments with my fellow co-workers and other fans who almost always have differing points of view on these things than I do. So this isn’t a long rant from a grouchy longtime NASCAR viewer who finds anything and everything to gripe about. I really, really do try and find the good side in it, to sit back and enjoy the race, and give NASCAR the benefit of the doubt when things go wrong. But in this case, I was plain old frustrated. As much as I want an exciting race (and the end of this race did wind up being exciting), I still want there to be rules and consistency, and in this case there just wasn’t. Or maybe there was, and those who were watching via television cameras weren’t able to see it. And since I’ve weighed all the logical options and still don’t have an answer, I can’t help but get a little wound up.
If that means NASCAR has to light a fire under the chairs of the television partners whose job it is to tell the story of the race to the viewers, then so be it. But debris cautions are almost expected as part of the race now, and they are a thorn in the side to many race fans who see it as a cheap way to generate manufactured excitement. They need to lessen the ammunition against this complaint and the television cameras may be a very simple way to do that.
Or maybe… just maybe… NASCAR needs to change the way it does things. Whether that’s being more conservative on what it throws cautions for or trying new strategies, it doesn’t matter anymore. The lack of consistency is killing its credibility, and that’s something agreed on by many fans young and old, even those who do everything they can to defend the sport and build it up. It’s not much to ask for and it’s not much to change.
But that also might mean that fans can’t be asking for a caution when a race becomes boring over time, and I’ve seen that happen too. They have to be willing to accept that sometimes, someone is going to dominate and win and there is nothing NASCAR can do about it without throwing a caution for something that wouldn’t matter otherwise.
I don’t have an easy solution, and if I do, it’s certainly not a popular one. But I at least agree that I wish there was an easier way to find a balance between excitement and strategy without feeling like NASCAR and the broadcast partners aren’t put in a position of trying to decide between the two.