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When NASCAR first revealed the implementation of a caution clock for this year’s Camping World Truck Series campaign, the first reaction I had was to scream and ask why the sanctioning body felt the need to mess with a series that didn’t need manipulation to create excitement. After all, the racing on track certainly speaks for itself most weeks. And apparently I wasn’t alone, as illustrated by this lovely compilation of fan reaction from USA Today Sports.
But as I’ve tried to do every time NASCAR has made some sort of competition change throughout the years, I instead chose to enter the season with an open mind and wait to see what kind of implications the clock truly brought on. I mean, how can you condemn something that’s being tried out before it ever even has a chance to change the momentum of a race?
Of course when the green flag flew over Daytona, the trio of announcers on FOX Sports 1 felt it necessary to harp on the timer as it ticked down closer and closer to zero, and just as it looked like the season-opener wouldn’t get a chance to see that clock expire, the final seconds ticked away and a large group of drivers attempted to pull down pit road to beat the timer and service their trucks ahead of the impending caution. The intended strategy would have given those competitors track position over the rest of the field that would need to pit during the caution.
Not surprisingly, as soon as that wreck – officially a naturally occurring caution since it flew with 11 seconds left on the clock – happened, many were quick to run to social media and blame the caution clock for it. The effect of trying to manufacture excitement had caused unnecessary damage to multiple trucks, creating more cost and more work for the teams that are already stretched thin by dismal purses in the series and sponsorship that’s often hard to come by.
Not so fast. That’s not exactly what happened there. Sure, teams were trying to gain an edge over their fellow competitors, especially since no one really knew what to expect when the clock expired. But the reality in that case is that those drivers were likely about ready to make their pit stops anyway, and we all know what happens when a group of inexperienced drivers try to slow to pit road speed from upwards of 200 mph. Technically speaking, though, you can’t really blame the caution clock here as much as a lack of experience making green flag pit stops.
After the checkered flag flew, many drivers weighed in on the pit road crash. Spencer Gallagher, whose truck was torn up in the infield grass during that melee, didn’t pull any punches, telling NASCAR.com “NASCAR needs to add some kind of shutdown to pit road. I’d say probably even around five minutes before the caution clock is due to hit, just because of that exact reason it happened.
“It just invites too much gamesmanship with making a green-flag stop and trying to outsmart everyone else. That’s what happens. Things get way too crazy.”
Race winner Johnny Sauter expected the strategy play and nearly made the call to pit a lap before the pit road crash happened.
“I wish they could close pit road a couple, three minutes before the caution clock comes out so we don’t have this problem every week at these other racetracks, Texas, Michigan,” Sauter said. “It’ll make it so much nicer. I know we want to make it interesting for the fans, but we don’t want to have tore‑up race trucks like we did tonight on a pit stop.”
Fast forward to Atlanta and that’s certainly a different scenario. The first time the caution clock expired ended a 38-lap green flag run and erased the 5.81-second lead Matt Crafton had built over Spencer Gallagher. That caution was pretty much standard fare, and the field was set up for another 18 laps of green-flag competition until William Byron’s engine expired.
However, the second time the clock expired, the outcome was substantially different. Christopher Bell, who was leading at the time, lost a margin of just over a second, and the field was inside 20 to go by the end of that yellow flag, ready to see the clock disappear and let the conclusion play out naturally.
It’s been said over and over again that cautions breed cautions, and that’s exactly what happened. Drivers completed just one lap before Bell clipped teammate Daniel Suarez, who was engaged in a side-by-side battle with Crafton for the race lead. Chaos ensued, sending both Suarez and Crafton hard into the SAFER barriers and ending their days before they had a chance to battle it out for the win.
There you have it: damage directly related to the caution manufactured by NASCAR. While many believe the sanctioning body has been attempting to create drama for years by way of questionable debris caution, this wreck is the first you can blame on the field being closed up under the yellow.
Interestingly enough, 2016 isn’t the first time the Truck Series has seen scheduled pit stops. In the early years, the races saw five-minute halftime breaks, where teams could make any changes except tires, that were implemented to keep costs down, but many of those events were no longer than 125 miles max. Plus, many of the tracks the series raced at didn’t have pit roads that would allow for green-flag stops to be completed safely.
But here we are 20 years later, facing manufactured excitement in NASCAR’s latest gimmick to bring a new group of fans into the sport. I understand why the sanctioning body put the rule in place. After all, this day of instant gratification, through a myriad of social media options, has created a very short attention span, making long green flag runs “boring,” rather than strategic. That’s what the sport is trying to cater to, but the clock also manipulates the natural progression of a race, along with reducing the chances for newer drivers to build their experience before moving on to the XFINITY or Sprint Cup series.
Remember the lack of experience making green flag pit stops I mentioned earlier? Where is that experience supposed to come from now? Sure, there may be opportunities on short tracks for teams to make green-flag pit stops before the clock expires at certain points throughout the season, however limiting long runs where drivers are forced to pit under green expands the learning curve drivers will face on their way up the NASCAR ladder.
I am in no way advocating that the caution clock should be used in other series; in fact it’s quite the opposite and should be removed before someone gets seriously injured in a wreck caused by closing the field up. I didn’t understand the point of it before, and I certainly don’t get it now that it has caused multiple teams several thousand dollars worth of repairs without making the races more exciting.
From the time I really started following the Truck Series 10 years ago, it has consistently been the greatest on-track action and the most exciting to watch. So why kill that momentum that the competition itself creates? Is it really such a bad thing if a team hits on their setup so well that they run away from the field and dominate the race?
Apparently in today’s NASCAR, it is.
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