COMMENTARY: NASCAR needs to be consistent with the way it uses late-race caution flags.
And as long as it consistently officiates the final laps like it did Sunday night in the Coca-Cola 600, then it is giving drivers and fans the finish they deserve.
Sometimes an incident that might result in an automatic caution during the middle part of a race might not bring a yellow flag at the end. And that’s OK.
This is a race to the finish. Tracks don’t pay the winner for any lap except the last one, so it’s best for NASCAR officials not to interrupt the drivers’ sense of urgency during those final laps as long as it can be done safely.
The issue of consistency with caution flags came up after the Coca-Cola 600 when NASCAR didn’t throw a caution for a spinning Jeff Burton on the first lap of the green-white-checkered finish.
Burton spun when leader Kasey Kahne ran out of gas on the final restart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. charged into the lead. Burton was able to drive away, and with no other cars stopped on the track and no obvious debris, NASCAR officials let the race play out.
NASCAR made the right call. No one’s safety was in jeopardy, and that was clear before the leaders took the white flag. If it had appeared that Burton wouldn’t be able to keep going as the leaders raced out of Turn 4, NASCAR should have thrown the yellow in hopes that another attempt at a green-white-checkered restart would result in a finish under green.
There are many who believe that such a scenario on lap 4, lap 40, lap 200 and lap 400 should be treated the same. After all, a caution flag is a safety measure.
But fans come to see a race to the finish, and if NASCAR can reasonably get by without a caution flag during the final laps to produce a race to the finish, it owes it to the fans to do so.
A caution flag for debris in the middle of a long, green-flag run – debris that could cause someone to wreck, or allow NASCAR officials an opportunity to clean the track – is OK in the middle of the race but not at the end. The same is true with a spinning car.
At the end of a race, NASCAR officials can take extra time to see how things play out. NASCAR has shown it will throw a caution on the final lap when it needs to – AJ Allmendinger’s flip at Talladega and Clint Bowyer’s Nationwide car rolling onto its side at Dover are examples. Those were obvious situations where there was an immediate safety concern.
It might be helpful to drivers to have a little more consistency throughout the race, but it’s hard to imagine a driver slowing up in anticipation of a caution during the final laps. The reality is that on those final laps, drivers are not going to slow down until they are sure the caution has come out and they can see the yellow lights. They can’t afford to lose positions on the belief that a caution will come out, or should come out.
The decision to display the caution flag will be debated often. And the easy thing is to say that if a car spins, the caution automatically comes out.
But that wouldn’t be the right thing to do. NASCAR fans pay good money to see races finish under green, and they need NASCAR officials to use their best judgment to give them the best race possible.
They did at Charlotte, and hopefully they will consistently do that in the future.