While I'm generally not a conspiracy theorist when it comes to NASCAR – I don't believe officials favor certain drivers over others during the race, for example – I've sometimes thought debris cautions are used to help the "show."
If there's a long, green-flag run run and the race starts to get boring, it seems NASCAR will occasionally throw a debris caution to reset the field and give everyone a virtual timeout.
On Twitter, race fans refer to these yellow-flag periods as "phantom" or "mystery" debris cautions.
So during Monday's NASCAR rules meeting with the media, I asked officials about why debris cautions are thrown at certain times and not others.
"First off, if you're going to have a debris caution, you'd better have debris, right?" said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition. "That's starters. I mean, we don't randomly call something."
Officials said NASCAR tends to err on the side of caution (pardon the pun) when calling cautions. Many times, the race control tower will receive a report of debris – spotted by a safety vehicle or firetruck, for example – but is unable to verify what exactly it is.
In those situations, Sprint Cup Series director John Darby said officials are "almost handcuffed into having to throw a caution."
"If it's a glove or a ballcap out of the grandstands, (then) no harm, no foul, right?" Darby said. "But if (a NASCAR spotter) says, 'I don't know what it is' and it's a 65-pound chunk of tungsten that fell out of somebody's car, then we've got serious issues."
But what about the times when NASCAR goes to pick up debris and there's nothing there for the TV cameras to show viewers? Pemberton said that wasn't indicative of officials throwing a caution flag without reason.
"There's been times we called debris cautions and when you went to pick it up, it wasn't what you thought you saw on TV," Pemberton said.
"Or somebody had hit it and kicked it who knows where?" Darby added.
NASCAR is perhaps trigger-happy on cautions because of several instances that stick out in officials' minds. Darby recalled the Dover race in 2004 when Kasey Kahne was en route to his first career Sprint Cup victory but ran through oil and crashed into the wall.
"The teams will call for debris right and left when they need a caution," Darby said. "So we're in that part of the race where that huge cat-and-mouse game is going on, and somebody called in 'Oil in Turn 3.' And it was a team that had been saying for the last 10 laps, 'There's debris in (Turn) 1. Have them check for debris in (Turn) 2. There's oil in (Turn) 4.' So it's the whole 'crying wolf' deal, right?
"Same team called it up again and we said, 'Yeah, right,' and Kasey went BOOM, straight up into the fence (after running through the oil). And that's why you can't take those chances."
Pemberton remembered one race in Atlanta when officials were on the fence about calling a debris caution, and the debris ended up going through the window net of Bobby Labonte's car – barely missing the driver.
"I mean, it'd have killed him if it had hit him in the head," Pemberton said. "It's tough. It's a tough call sometimes."
But what about the times when it sounds as if NASCAR is looking for a reason to call a caution? Those of us who scan the NASCAR officials' radio channel will sometimes hear race director David Hoots field a report of questionable debris and then quickly say, "Put it out!" (the call for a caution).
"The thing is, you don't hear the information coming in from three or four different locations," Hoots said. "...There are like four or five different ways the information can come in, and we're trying to verify it. But you may not have heard the conversation on this channel over here."
Another reporter asked officials to clarify whether NASCAR officials were more likely to call for a yellow flag after 40 green-flag laps than five green-flag laps.
Darby shook his head no.
"It's more about knowing exactly what (the debris) is," he said. "You know a piece of roll bar padding isn't going to hurt anything. But in many, many more instances than not, the person that sees the debris can't tell us for sure what it is. We've got to stop the race and go get it."
Then, in a moment of candor, Darby added a comment which may sum up NASCAR's philosophy on throwing debris cautions.
"People forget: Whatever it is, you're hitting that shit at 200 mph," he said. "It's not like you're rolling down your side street and roll over a beer can."