In NASCAR, the most terrifying sight on the track is now the color yellow.
The yellow caution flag can ruin a driver's day, obliterating long leads and throwing off pit strategy. And when it shows up under dubious circumstances, it throws the entire sport into question.
Kyle Busch was the latest victim of a late-race caution, losing a four-second lead and, eventually, the race when a caution flag showed up with 26 laps remaining in Saturday night's Bank of America 500. Busch had wheeled the best car in the field all night long, and when the debris caution arrived, he launched into a rant so profane he'd have warranted a seven-figure FCC fine had it gone out over the airwaves.
After the race, he was more contained, but just barely. "I don't know what the caution was for," he said in a curt postrace interview. "You know, apparently there was a mouse that ran across the racetrack or something."
Television cameras did show debris on the track, but in the brief period the debris was on camera, it didn't appear to be large enough to significantly impact the course of the race.
But the caution flag certainly did. Given second life, Jamie McMurray easily outdistanced Busch on the restart, and held on for a convincing win. Meanwhile, Busch only barely held off Jimmie Johnson for second place.
This is the fourth instance this year, and third in the past six days, in which a high-profile driver took issue with NASCAR's questionable use of the caution flag:
• In Friday night's Nationwide race, NASCAR threw a caution to correct a penalty it incorrectly called on driver Brian Scott. Problem is, the caution destroyed Kevin Harvick's pit strategy, costing him a chance to race for the win.
"I've never seen such a thing in my whole life," Harvick said. "That's like stopping the game in the middle of a play and saying, 'We’re going to start over.' It's hard to play strategy anymore." Forced to pit, Harvick could only manage a 10th-place finish.
• Last Sunday, Clint Bowyer saw his own lead vanish when NASCAR called what Bowyer termed a "mystery caution" late in the race. "I saw [the debris] for a long time," Bowyer said. "You know, I mean, hell, it's part of [racing in NASCAR]. What do you say?"
• And in July, NASCAR fined Denny Hamlin $50,000, apparently for comments he made on Twitter concerning phantom cautions late in races. "Truthfully I don't think It matters to the fans who wins the race as long as its a good "show". Even if it comes as the expense of competition" [all sic'd], Hamlin said on Twitter.
Showmanship bordering on gimmickry has long been a hallmark of NASCAR racing, and drivers accept that the fates which take away a race from them this time might give them one the next. Still, at a time when NASCAR is at a low ebb in popularity and the ruling braintrust of NASCAR is held in such low regard, even the appearance that NASCAR is manipulating the outcome of races is enough to disgust legions of fans.
Of course, that could all change if NASCAR happened to throw a flag that derailed Jimmie Johnson's chances, couldn't it?