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)
2017: 8.2 (also first year of stage racing)
2016: 5.6 (included six debris/competition yellows)
2012: 5.6 (includes rain-shortened Fontana race with one caution)
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.