Photo: Richard Childress Racing
This weekend was an extraordinary one in the world of NASCAR. Just a week after the Daytona 500’s pomp and circumstance, all three of the sanctioning body’s major national series were racing at Daytona International Speedway again, but this time on the slightly modified international road course. It was totally awesome to watch these heavy and powerful beasties working out of their element, but could have been made significantly more awesome with just a few rules tweaks.
NASCAR has committed to making road course races a part of the schedule in 2021, running an unprecedented eight events where drivers will be forced to turn left and right. This move mirrors a shift in recent years that has seen IndyCar increasingly adopting road course races in its schedule. In addition to the two events already held on the Daytona road course, we’ll have the privilege of seeing NASCAR Cup events at Circuit of the Americas, Road America, the traditional rounds at Sonoma and Watkins Glen, as well as fan-favorite infield courses at Indianapolis and Charlotte. I’ll definitely be watching more NASCAR in 2021 than I have since about 2003.
If NASCAR really wants to be taken seriously by road course stars and fans alike, it will need to make a few changes to its caution procedures. Three major changes, in fact.
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Sunday’s Cup main event flag man waved 8 yellows for a total of 12 laps. 25 total cautions for the three series combined across the weekend. That’s too many. With the track being longer, a caution lap takes far too long. Add in another lap for pit stops and unlapping and catching up to the pack and whatnot, and you’ve got a recipe for really ruining the action. Considering three of those cautions were caused by the series, rather than any on-track issues, and it’s just excessive.
1. Kill Stage Cautions
Great road course racing is nearly always defined by strategy. New tires versus old tires, full tank of fuel versus splash and dash, lift and coast fuel savings, staying out during a caution, do you take rain tires in a short sprinkle; there are traditionally hundreds of options for a pit wall strategist to take. Because the NASCAR road course events are relatively short on laps—Sunday’s race was 70 laps total for example—those two mandatory stage cautions not only take up a disproportional number of racing laps, but totally neuter race strategy.
If you know that there will be a mandatory caution at lap 16 and lap 34, you’ve got your first two stops pretty much figured out. Nearly everyone pits at the same time, cutting out any idea of running short, running long, or saving fuel. The run from the end of stage two to the finish would have been promising, but it was cut short by a mandated rain caution.
2. Kill Rain Cautions
One of the pure joys of road course racing comes in the unpredictability of rain racing. If you choose to stay out on slicks, maybe you’ll get swallowed up by the racers who pitted for grooved tires, but once the rain ends and they need to pit again to switch back to slicks, you’ve saved an entire pit stop, assuming you can keep it on the black stuff and pointed in the right direction. Some of the most exciting F1 and sports car races have been rain impacted. When it rains in NASCAR, however, the action stops.
On Sunday there was a brief Florida shower. It was barely anything of note, and none of the drivers on track crashed or even pitted for grooved tires. For about two laps, the track was misty, but drivers were still able to carry 150+ mile per hour speeds through the banked oval sections of the track, because the hot slicks were plenty capable of displacing the minimal water on the track. Apparently it is in the series rulebook that a road course race with rain will receive a mandatory rain caution, but doesn’t mandate teams to fit the cars with rain tires.
So why do it? Teams are trusted to fit new tires to their cars during dry green flag stops, so why can’t drivers and teams make the decision to pit for wet weather tires if they need them? Killing that momentum and taking away any of the excitement of a rain shower is absurd and must end ASAP.
3. Use Local Yellows For Minor Incidents
Throughout the weekend, there were multiple caution flags thrown for debris, a car hitting the wall and continuing, or a spin. In sporty cars, such a thing could potentially be cleaned up by the time the field got back to the same spot on the track a lap later. In which case, the race would continue and nobody would be any worse the wear. In the case that the damage hasn’t been cleared by the time the field returns, either a yellow flag is shown for that segment of the track, forcing racers to slow down for a brief section rather than stopping the race for two or three laps.
This is known as a local yellow. The track is broken up into segments, usually the distance between flag stations, and the yellow flag is in effect until the driver sees the next clear station with a green flag shown, at which point racing can resume. This allows minor incidents to be cleaned up without impacting the action or killing the momentum.
NASCAR has already responded to caution criticism by putting its fingers in its ears and shouting LA LA LA LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU. According to the series, it won’t develop caution rules specifically for road courses, despite road courses now being just shy of a quarter of the races this year. I know NASCAR rarely listens to its fans, but this is one of those things that will only make the racing better. Give it a shot!