It could simply be a coincidence, but it’s been happening routinely enough lately that what starts as a coincidence becomes a trend. Most fans found the conclusion of the Kansas race a couple weeks ago less than compelling.
It was the errant tire that found itself marooned on the grassy area between the track and pit road that drew most of the comments, many of them negative.
But something else bothered me to an equal degree. The caution flag flew on lap 259 for a legitimate incident involving the cars of Christopher Bell, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Josh Bilicki. On lap 257, Kyle Busch was credited with wresting the lead from Kyle Larson, who had dominated much of the race. But had the debris been quickly dealt with and the race been allowed to resume, Larson would have at least had a shot at re-passing Busch.
Instead, and this is the trend I’m either noticing or imagining, track cleanup seemed overly slow and deliberate. There were almost 10 laps scheduled to be run in the race when Stenhouse caused that caution. But the laps were left to tick away as the pack circled the track behind the pace car, their positions frozen. That led to yet another overtime finish. A green-white-checkered finish is far preferable to a race being allowed to end under caution, but it really limits how much time a driver, even one in a decidedly faster car, has to work with to advance his position or perhaps even take the win.
Yes, sometimes races used to end under caution and a lot of people weren’t happy about it, though a vast majority of fans count a race that ended under caution as one of their all-time favorite NACAR events ever. Dale Earnhardt was leading the field on lap 200 of the 1998 Daytona 500, the one Crown Jewel event that had eluded Earnhardt his entire career, though he’d come heart-achingly close to winning it many times. Bobby Labonte was making a determined charge at the black No. 3 car and might well have caught him. But NASCAR wasn’t going to allow that to happen yet again, especially not as they kicked off their much ballyhooed 50th anniversary season.
Earnhardt and his multitude of fans were of course deliriously happy that he had won. Members of most other teams lined pit road to congratulate Earnhardt on the win as well, even the crews of other drivers who had had run-ins with Earnhardt during his storied career. And it was a bit of a relief that fans were finally not going to hear about the “Earnhardt Curse” at Daytona anymore. (Truth is Earnhardt Senior won a ton of races at Daytona, just not the 500 until 1998.)
I don’t mean to minimize the work that the track crews do during a caution period or the importance of that work. Even one errant shard of metal left on the track as racing resumes can cut down the tire of the leader. Fluids left on the track not completely and correctly cleaned up can cause drivers to lose control, and physics being physics, that can lead to nasty wrecks. Let the track crews have time to do their jobs and do them properly.
But the fact remains that in this era of the low horsepower, high downforce package, the most competitive racing is directly after a restart, and takes place in a period of a lap or two — especially if that’s under a potential overtime end of the race.
Most fans head to the track, or invest three or four hours of their precious downtime at home watching on the tube, wanting to see a good, competitive race, with the best cars and drivers settling the race win between themselves. Their eyes tend to glaze over watching the pack circulate slowly behind the pace car lap after lap, especially as the number of laps left to run in the race dwindles away.
So to provide the fans with what they want, keep the track crews safe and able to do their job completely, and give each driver a legitimate shot at winning, here’s what I’d propose …
If a race is under caution with 12 or fewer laps left to run, the red flag would be displayed to bring the race to a halt. When track cleanup was complete to NASCAR’s satisfaction, the caution would return. Drivers who wished or needed to pit would be allowed to do so on the one-lap “hurry-up” schedule, on the first lap after the track returned to caution conditions. Sorry, but this “choose cone” stuff gets jettisoned for this late race restart. Ideally, the racing would resume with enough laps left to run to settle the race fairly among the fastest cars at the front of the pack.
Since NASCAR seems fond of cute nicknames, I’d call my end of race procedures “The Dirty Dozen.” Yes, cautions breed cautions, so not every race is going to end spectacularly, and some drivers will still likely end up furiously angry with other drivers over slights real or imagined.
The Dirty Dozen rule would get the weekend off at road course events. Recall Elkhart Lake, for example, is over four miles around, which means adding 12 laps would add more than 48 miles to the advertised race length, which is a bit too much.
I’d also love to see NASCAR adopt the system most modern racing series use for caution flags at road courses. Rather than displaying a general yellow flag around the entire course, a “localized” yellow is displayed prior to the segment of the track where the incident actually took place and caution is warranted. One errant driver who got his play-pretty caught in a sand trap shouldn’t mean racing has to cease around the entire circuit, especially one of epic length like Elkhart.
I’d also hope that the potential new rule would not apply to the plate tracks ;Talladega and Daytona. For drivers racing at those two tracks, they are in enough danger as it is (ask Joey Logano and Ryan Newman), and the goal is to get the race over with as soon as possible before someone gets badly hurt … or worse.
Should NASCAR be hosting races on Mother’s Day? I suppose the TV ratings, which should be released early this week, will tell the tale. As I noted a couple weeks ago, NASCAR’s experiment with running the second Winston at Atlanta way back in 1986 was a disaster both in terms of attendance and TV ratings.
My guess is that the ratings for Sunday’s race will be on the low side, but then lower TV ratings are par for the course as of late. So why take the risk rather than schedule the race for Saturday evening? Darlington does have lights after all. FOX’s Bill Wagner was pretty blunt about it. Typically, Sunday afternoon Cup races draw 20% to 25 % higher ratings than similar Cup races run on Saturday evening.
Speaking of the TV networks, it seemed that the truck race Friday was given an overly optimistic time slot to get the entire race in on FS1. The race went into extra innings, which I’m sure enraged some fans of The Spring League’s Blues and Sea Lions, presuming such people exist when their game was moved to FS2. FS2 is one of those triple-digit cable channels in these parts, one that few people have committed to memory or even quite sure they get.
NASCAR fans might face some rescheduling woes of their own after this season. The NBCSN channel, which has carried a fair amount of NASCAR programming, is being taken off the air entirely by year’s end. It would seem the movement lately is toward streaming TV and electric cars. NASCAR is saying that even the new “stock” cars debuting next year will eventually be powered by hybrid drivetrains in an attempt to lure new automakers into the sport. I may not know how many fans will attend or even watch a Mother’s Day race even at Darlington, but I do know that practically no NASCAR fans are going to pay to watch races with quieter race cars, especially if they are in Hyundais.
If NASCAR could just find a way to lure Dodge back into NASCAR racing, all would be well. There’s gotta still be a lot of gearheads running around at Dodge. After all they’re building a 700-plus horsepower pickup truck for sale to the public.
I’m surprised that nobody chose to do a “Throwback” tribute to Junior Johnson’s “Yellow Banana” 1966 Ford, the most infamous cheated-up car ever to compete in a NASCAR race. Bill France had asked Johnson to bring the car to the track to help break the 1966 Ford boycott of NASCAR racing that year. It wouldn’t have mattered if they built it with a Mustang, Camaro or even Camry body. It would have looked as much like a 1966 Ford as Junior’s race car did that afternoon.