NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice?: No-Contact NASCAR

Did You Notice?… One of the biggest storylines in NASCAR this season has been the sport throwing caution to the wind. You know, like throwing the flag off the flag stand.

They don’t need to use it.

Years of fake debris yellows have given way to long green-flag runs for the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.  There have also been no more than six cautions flags in any race since the Daytona 500 (and that includes stage breaks). Martinsville’s Monday matinee was exceptionally clean, triggering just four cautions total. Only one of them (an incident involving Austin Dillon and Jamie McMurray) wasn’t previously scheduled by NASCAR.

The average of 4.8 cautions during that stretch (Daytona 500 excluded) is the lowest for the MENCS during the Chase era. You have to go back to 1979 (when the old road course at Riverside was the season opener) for the average to dip that low.

Caution Flags Through First Six Races (Excluding Daytona)

2018: 4.8

2017: 8.2 (also first year of stage racing)

2016: 5.6 (included six debris/competition yellows)

2015: 9.8

2014: 9.4

2013: 8.8

2012: 5.6 (includes rain-shortened Fontana race with one caution)

2011: 8.0

2010: 9.4

2009: 10.2

2008: 11.8

2007: 10.4

2006: 11.2

2005: 11.0

2004: 7.2

There are some benefits to these long green-flag runs. The race plays out naturally, leaving NASCAR referees out of it. The fastest car, rather than get robbed by a green-white-checkered finish or botched late caution-flag pit stop typically wins the race.

But these stretches, as I wrote about last week have caused the leader to pull away in clean air. Clint Bowyer led 215 of the last 216 laps at Martinsville and had the race in hand down the stretch. It’s clear aerodynamics continue to play a role in leaders being able to pull away.

But there’s also another factor at play in a NASCAR world where parts don’t break anymore, limiting the yellows for engine failure. (Just one car, Landon Cassill, failed to finish at Martinsville). Long green-flag runs have captured top-quality drivers like Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, and others a lap down or more in recent weeks.

Years ago, instead of double-file lead-lap restarts a caution flag would allow those lapped cars to restart on the inside of the leaders. It gave them a chance to earn their lap back the hard way instead of relying on the Lucky Dog or wave-around to get back in contention.

Since the current double-file rules have been used, in 2009, there’s been little clamor to return to the old system. But I’m curious, in this caution-free world where the leader escapes like a bat out of hell what would happen with those rules in place.

Typically, a lapped guy like Johnson would be able to scoot in front of the leader on a restart. He’d utilize short-run speed to try and earn a lap back while pushing the leader back into traffic.

You know what else that would do? Take away clean air. So instead of a double-file restart turning into a single-file parade, some of the lead cars might be stuck together for more than a few laps. And they’d also be dealing with lapped traffic on top of it.

Mixing up the field might lead to more contact in a world that’s been relatively contact free. I do think the way in which slow cars start at the back all the time creates a regimented race with everyone running in place.

But those aren’t the only reasons we’re going caution free. Dominant drivers up front, clean air, and people running different speeds spaced out on track are only part of the problem. What we’re finding this year is that even the slightest amount of contact, even at Martinsville, is enough to ruin your day.

Rubbing fenders could lead to cut tires but also causes a change in handling. One crumpled piece of metal on a car is enough in this age of parity to kill speed for the day.

When you have these specimens of engineering perfection, stock car racing turned Formula One there’s no touching allowed. All of a sudden, races turn into a battle for survival where keeping your fenders clean is the only way to win.

It’s a sign there’s too much engineering in a sport that has the “stock” in stock car for a reason. When you’re needing wind tunnel time for, say, a short track race at Bristol we’ve got a problem.

Race car drivers are just like any other athlete: they want to win. But if it’s proven how quickly they can lose with any type of contact, they’ll back off. NASCAR, teams, and drivers need to work together on the next generation of car to make it OK for a little contact. One bump can’t mean ending your chance to win in 100% of cases.

And if more contact and a bulkier, less sleek model means less engineers on the payroll? We need to live with that. The pink slips are going to come either way at this rate.

Did You Notice? … What the world was like the last time Clint Bowyer won a race? My colleague, Christian Koelle, jumpstarted an idea to take a quick look at where the NASCAR world was at that fateful day at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

It was October 13, 2012, the last win for Bowyer before Monday’s race.

  • Bowyer ran the No. 15 for now-defunct Michael Waltrip Racing. His teammate? Mark Martin, who was sixth driving the No. 55 and Martin Truex Jr. driving the NAPA Toyota.
  • Also running that day: Tony Stewart, Juan Pablo Montoya, Dave Blaney (not Ryan), David Reutimann, David Stremme, and Regan Smith.
  • Not in the field? Dale Earnhardt Jr. as he was recovering from post-concussion syndrome. Smith replaced him.
  • AJ Allmendinger was driving the No. 51 for James Finch who was also still a Cup owner at the time.
  • William Byron was just 14 years old and hadn’t even raced in a real car yet. 

As you can see, a lot has changed in five years. Will Bowyer be able to utilize this win to jumpstart his MENCS career? A future contract (his expires in 2018) could depend on it.

Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….

  • What’s up with Daniel Suarez? While the other three Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas keep chugging along Suarez has appeared to take a step back. A top-10 run at Phoenix, what looked to be a breath of fresh air has been followed up by runs of 23rd and 18th. He sits well outside of NASCAR playoff position six races into 2018.
  • Darrell Wallace Jr. was as big a story at Daytona as Austin Dillon’s surprise 500 win. But Wallace, despite a media buildup has fallen flat ever since. 34th at Martinsville, he’s barely even featured on TV with the No. 43. That’s a shame for the sport as, like in the days of Danica Patrick, his fan base cannot be grown without tangible on-track results.

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Bill B

While I would love to see the lapped cars back on the inside on restarts and the repeal of the wave around rule, my memory is that the lapped car usually could not overtake the lead lap car. This resulted in the leader getting away from the second place car because that lapped car would often fall in behind the leader creating a buffer between the leader and the 2nd place car (and this would propagate all the way through the field).

As I said, I personally like the way that worked but I just wanted to point out that your scenario “Typically, a lapped guy like Johnson would be able to scoot in front of the leader on a restart” was the exception and not the rule (or typical). Remember the leader still controls the start and those lapped cars are lapped cars for a reason (they are usually slower), so most times the leader still scoots away and having a lapped car as a buffer allows them to scoot away even further (from the 2nd place car). Still, my number one gripe is the entitlement of free laps as a result of the wave around rule, so I’d love to see it go back to lapped cars having to earn their laps back on the track.

rg72

Don’t forget there are 6-7 fewer cars per race and these missing cars were in most cases, inferior equipment with inferior drivers more prone to cause cautions.
Fewer drivers “needing” cautions (Which drivers received a lot of free passes and wave arounds through the years and which drivers stopped racing full-time after the 2017 season?).
Also until a couple of years ago the first six post-Daytona races usually featured both Bristol and Martinsville, so the look-back is a tough comparison.
Everyone has to admit this was an atypical Martinsville race, run on a Monday coupled with an upcoming off-week. This year it was get the race in, get out of town.

I’ve always said as part of the Darlington throwback theme, they should run the race with rules like lapped cars on the inside for restarts, no free passes or wave arounds and so on.

Sol Shine

Suarez isn’t as good as the hype suggests, he just brought bushels of money and bought a top flight ride.

Bob

well darrell wallace jr will have to get better at finishes. danica appearing in a bikini kept her in racing longer than she should have. don’t think darrell appearing in a speedo would be the answer. let’s see if he stays in racing as long as crash patrick if he doesn’t improve. sure would like to see the 43 improve.

Russ

why is it that race teams desperate for money to stay in the game and race drivers desperate to stay in the game seem to go together?

salb

I’m all for restarting the lead lap cars on the inside. his giving a lap back without having to earn it just isn’t right. It certainly made for much more interesting racing with lead lap cars having to figure out how to get to the inside!

DoninAjax

Did you notice? Brian should add another race per year to Martinsville, Bristol, and Richmond and cut races at cookie-cutter mile-and-a-half dogs. They know which ones.

Travis from Athens

Just let the leader decide if the Lucky Dog gets his lap back or not. When they raced back to caution it was up to the leader to slow down and allow the lapped car to pass and that caused controversy when you wouldn’t give the lap back.

Travis from Athens

Waiting for moderation, in other words let me see if I censor your speech or not. What kind of journalist are you that wouldn’t allow other ones the Freedom of speech? This will be my last comment posted on your little Nazi site

Echo

Bubba never got a win in xfinity in all those starts, who in their right mind thought he could win in Cup. He is barely staying ahead of the back burners, and finishing laps down week after week. His pre season announced sponsors are just about used up, what then.

Russ

nascar and GM will help get the car on the track. As the heir apparent to Danica’s position as the only driver that didn’t fit the stereotype he has to be out there. Plus there is the RPM charter to protect.

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