Ryan: How NASCAR needs to wave the yellow on intentional cautions

Nate Ryan

There have been two cautions in two races that already have altered the course of the 2019 playoffs. There almost certainly will be another that will definitively determine the 2019 title.

There is every year at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where the yellow flag has fallen within the final run in all five editions of the championship round at the 1.5-mile track.

Sometimes, yellows have occurred much later and more frequently, and in every instance, their timing has played a critical role in crowning the champion.

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That’s a portentous backdrop for the disconcerting trend of seemingly intentional spins that have caused game-changing caution flags the past two weeks.

The hope must be that there won’t be a black cloud hanging over Homestead after the season finale’s inevitably critical yellow arrives.

NASCAR has yet to address drivers about intentional spins (though officials have hinted they will in Sunday’s prerace meeting), but there is a much bigger discussion that needs to occur beyond just “stop looping your cars on purpose.”

Essentially, NASCAR needs to establish a better foundation of when cautions are being called and whether drivers will be allowed dispensation in legitimate cases (i.e., spinning with a flat tire) to help ensure that they are. The 2019 inconsistency in the tower on yellows that has been evident in races such as the Roval is factoring into this debate, too.

In the Oct. 27 race at Martinsville Speedway, there were three yellows for debris in the first 350 laps. But the trigger from the tower was much slower in the final 50 laps when the tires began coming apart on the Fords of Clint Bowyer and Joey Logano. In both instances, the yellow flew after each car spun.

“There were guys early in the race at Martinsville that scraped the wall, and ‘Boom!’ yellow’s out,” Kyle Petty said on this week’s NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “NASCAR was quick with the caution. Then Bowyer has trouble, and Joey has his issue. Where’s the caution? You threw one an hour ago for a lesser incident. If they’d thrown it, you wouldn’t have had a car spin. Joey and Clint felt like because NASCAR didn’t give them their caution whether it was deserved or perceived, they felt like, ‘We’ll get our own caution.’”

It was pivotal in the case of Logano, who stayed on the lead lap and finished eighth rather than make a green-flag stop that probably would have cost him at least 15 points (and barely above the cut line heading into Phoenix).

Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway was nearly as important. Bubba Wallace’s spin to cause a yellow fundamentally changed the complexion of Kyle Larson’s race (along with several others) and helped put the Chip Ganassi Racing playoff driver in a deeper points hole.

If the spins were purposeful, it’s hard to find serious fault with what any of the drivers did. In each case, the yellow was primarily for their own benefit. It fell well short of the sort of the race manipulation that has required NASCAR to issue draconian penalties.

Both Petty and Tony Stewart also were right this week to suggest that NASCAR doesn’t need to monitor every spin to judge whether it was potentially nefarious. With the number of impenetrable ground rules applied weekly, there needs to be as much deregulation in Cup as humanly possible.

But there also needs to be a more clear and general understanding of what constitutes a caution flag and what drivers might be permitted in causing one.

If an agreed-upon standard becomes, “we’ll let you spin your car after you’ve sustained a flat tire under normal circumstances,” that is better than the vague alternative of no standard at all.

Because if someone blatantly causes a yellow at Homestead, it’ll get a lot more complicated.

Through information supplied by NACSAR since last year via the electronic control unit in Cup cars’ fuel injection systems, teams have access to more data than ever – steering, brake, throttle traces and RPMs.

That is strong evidence to build a case if a team feels it was wronged on a late caution flag (if Chip Ganassi Racing had wanted to challenge the No. 43’s spin at Texas, the facts likely were there), and it severely undermines the NASCAR contention that it’s difficult to judge intent.

It’s a lot easier when you can determine precisely when someone hit the accelerator or brake and flicked the wheel.

When the grand prize is at stake, and that information is available, “we can’t determine intent” will become as suspicious an explanation as a spin in question.

With the dissolution of Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson, there is no greater successful crew chief-driver dichotomy than Rodney Childers and Kevin Harvick.

Though there is much less creative tension in their working relationship than the Hendrick Motorsports duo that won seven championships, Childers and Harvick have a yin and yang that blends perfectly with their intensity to be ranked first anytime that cars are on track (be it for practice, qualifying or the race).

That was evidenced by wildly different ways that they got ready for Texas. Childers maniacally reviewed tape of the March 31 race, watching it for strategy clues Monday morning … and then rewatching it Tuesday afternoon (after a viewing of the March 10 race at ISM Raceway left him unsettled) and then again Sunday morning before the Texas race as he crammed “just like having to take a big exam.

“Places like here and Indy, you have to go back and pay attention to that stuff and what people do with two tires and no tires and track position and all that,” Childers said. “Obviously, you’ve just kind of got to have that in your head of what could happen, what can happen, and I probably drove (Harvick) crazy sending crazy messages about what other people did in (March).”

“He watches it so many times that I don’t have to watch it,” Harvick said with a smile.

Contrast that with how the driver prepped the day before the race – taking his wife and two kids to the Fort Worth Zoo. Harvick is always on call even with his family (he was checking his watch Saturday for instantaneous processing of hourly email and text updates from Childers), but he also has the ability (and approval from the No. 4 team) to compartmentalize his personal life.

That balance is why it works for the Stewart-Haas Racing duo.

“They expect me to come to the racetrack and be prepared,” Harvick said of his team after his 49th career victory. “And the thing about being prepared for me is to be as mentally focused as you can.  And my age and experience kind of comes into that. You’ve been to some of these racetracks so many times, and I feel like I know the characteristics of the car.

“But there’s not a day that goes by that he doesn’t send me a text, ‘Hey, we’re going to do this’ or one of the engineers will send me a text and say, ‘What do you think about this gear ratio.’ One of them is texting me at least once a day, if not multiple times a day, as to what’s going on and what’s happening. Those are those relationships that are constant and steady, and everybody believes in each other because that’s just how it works.

“It’s never a bad time to text me or it’s never a bad time to call me.  It’s never a bad time to ask me to do something. When they need something, I put down what I’m doing, and I try to figure out how we’re going to do it.  The priority are (family) and that race team, and the things that they need.  But I am a thorough believer that that circle of life has to be balanced for you to show up to this racetrack every single week, to be as focused as you need to be to process all of that information.”

When Harvick and Childers won the 2014 Cup championship, “I Believe That We Will Win” was their rallying cry (borrowed from the U.S. Men’s National Team in soccer). Texas revealed why the underpinnings of that motto still are working five years later.

“There’s a deep belief in each other that we can go out and be better than anybody on any given day,” Harvick said. “Most of the time we can talk ourselves into it even when we probably don’t really have a chance, we can talk ourselves into it.”

Harvick’s victory at Texas marked a calendar year since the last time that a Cup race winner had been hit with a major postrace infraction.

The de-facto nullification of his Nov. 4, 2018 victory at Texas was a big part of the impetus behind NASCAR’s overhaul of postrace penalties this season that limited inspection to being conducted solely at the track.

Though there have been disqualifications of winners in the truck and Xfinity Series, all 34 race wins in Cup have been untainted (though a couple of other finishers have been dinged).

It’s hardly an outcome anyone would have predicted in February on the heels of a 2018 season in which Harvick’s team was nailed twice after wins and stood out among a processional of cars deemed illegal at NASCAR’s R&D Center in Concord.

Last year’s incessant midweek raft of negative headlines – culminating with Harvick losing his berth in the championship round (he regained it on points after Phoenix) – prompted the shift in policy this season, and it seemed destined to produce it least one earth-shattering disqualification.

As it turned out, Harvick was prescient in what he told NBCSports.com’s Dustin Long before the season about teams and NASCAR getting on the same page about how inspection would be handled under the new parameters.

Those discussions apparently have worked.

The finicky nature of the traction compound at Texas might make some playoff drivers gun-shy about hopping on the sticky stuff at ISM Raceway, which is applying the substance for the first time.

There is a scientific process used in its application that produces estimated grip levels, but Texas underscored how tricky that can be as several drivers struggled to find the adhesive and found the wall instead.

Phoenix will be using the traction compound for the first time, and perhaps more importantly, it’ll be the first time the PJ1 is applied at a NASCAR-owned track without much supervision from the staff of Speedway Motorsports tracks owned by Bruton Smith. Michigan was the first NASCAR track to use PJ1 a couple of months ago, but it came with guidance from Speedway Motorsports vice president of operations Steve Swift.

Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski all crashed after finding the limits of the traction compound’s grip at Texas, where the PJ1 didn’t seem to activate as well at other tracks. Though the intent is to provide another lane of racing at Phoenix, it’ll be unsurprising if drivers elect to tiptoe – at least in the first half of the race after Elliott, Keselowski and Hamlin were burned by testing it in the first 85 laps at Texas.

“Drivers will be asking, ‘Is it that big of a gain?’ and if not, you probably don’t need to go up there,” NASCAR on NBC analyst Jeff Burton said. “If not, you probably don’t need to need to go there. It’s there as an option, but you aren’t forced into it.”

John Hunter Nemechek will be making history together with his dad, Joe, in running all three series this weekend at ISM Raceway. That’s an impressive father-son accomplishment, but it’ll be hard to top what John Hunter did in first career Cup start.

The 22-year-old started 29th and finished 21st at Texas, outrunning Front Row Motorsports teammates Michael McDowell and David Ragan. He also finished ahead of many veterans such as Ryan Preece and Bubba Wallace (and just behind Paul Menard and Chris Buescher).

Though the prognosis of No. 36 Ford driver Matt Tifft remains uncertain after a seizure, Nemechek’s debut in NASCAR’s premier series should provide Front Row with a measure of comfort.

Despite spending the full season in Xfinity cars that don’t ride nearly as low to the pavement as Cup and drive much differently, Nemechek still finished eight spots ahead of his father, who probably deserves credit for not only raising but also motivating the second-generation racer. “We’re a competitive family, and we love to push each other to the next level,” John Hunter said.

If he can post solid finishes for Front Row in the final two races of 2019, Nemechek’s driver stock should rise. Though he was eliminated in the second round of the playoffs, he has posted five top 10s in the past six Xfinity races, and his seasonlong consistency deserves another look.

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