Bruton Smith's Mandatory Caution Flag Idea Could Send NASCAR Into WWE Territory

Jun 10, 2012; Long Pond, PA, USA; A general view of the yellow caution flag during the Pocono 400 at Pocono Raceway. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-US PRESSWIRE

Ten years ago, the thought of sprinkling competition cautions into a NASCAR race to spice up the event would have been met with unanimous disgust.

But that was before the Chase, which artificially resets the point standings. It was before the free pass rule, which artificially restores a lap for one lapped car. And it was before the wave-around rule, which artificially puts cars back on the lead lap.

So when Speedway Motorsports Inc. chairman Bruton Smith brought up the idea of mandatory cautions last week – a proposal that would address concerns about the lack of excitement during long, green-flag periods – some drivers weren't all that opposed to it.

"I would not be against it if we see the races continue to run green the whole way with one or two cautions," Greg Biffle said. "I think that (the lack of cautions), over time, could lose the fans' interest. ... That's not what we want."

"I don't see why we shouldn't have some TV timeouts," Jeff Gordon said. "I'd rather have that than some mysterious debris caution, to be honest."

But practically in the same breath, Gordon also said this: "I'm not totally against it, but I'm also more leaning toward just letting the race play out the way it's supposed to."

And there's the problem: It's unclear what NASCAR really wants to be, just like it's unclear what fans want from the sport.

Should NASCAR gear everything toward entertainment? Or should it try to remain as pure as possible, despite the recent rule changes (including double-file restarts and multiple green-white-checkered finishes) that trick up the racing?

"As a sport, we have to decide who we want to be," Brad Keselowski said. "I think we're in a little bit of an identity crisis."

The topic of cautions is a controversial one. Fans and media who cry for yellow flags are labeled as wreck-mongers by the purists, but that's missing a key point: Cautions bunch up the field and force drivers to run closer together, which is when the most excitement happens in a race (whether there's a crash or not).

Caution flags are down significantly this season, and thus there are fewer double-file restarts. And fewer restarts mean less opportunity for drivers to race side-by-side and give fans the action they crave.

Smith said the lack of caution periods "ruins the event and damages our sport," which is what led to his suggestion of having pre-determined timeouts to break up the racing.

"We are in the show business," Smith said. "So if we're in the show business, let's deliver that show. Because, right now, we're not delivering."

Of course, those who follow NASCAR closely know many competitors believe such "show cautions" already exist in the form of phantom debris cautions. As Gordon noted, timeout cautions could eliminate those questionable yellow flags while also serving as a way to increase entertainment.

Gordon was even willing to go a step further, suggesting heat races followed by a 100-lap shootout as the main event.

"We all get set in our ways and you say, 'But this is the history of the sport and what it's been built on is 400- or 500-mile races,'" Gordon said. "But what is more important: History and tradition or the most entertaining form of racing? I don't know. I'm glad I'm not making those decisions."

If NASCAR is purely about entertainment, then Smith is right. And in that case, NASCAR shouldn't waffle; it should completely revamp the sport and take Gordon's suggestion.

Bring in qualifying races and invert the field. Chop the race distances and do everything in the name of entertainment – just like a local short track would.

But if NASCAR is really about racing – determining which car is the fastest and which driver can out-perform the others – then Smith's idea cannot work. Otherwise, NASCAR ventures into WWE territory and creates a product that is more show than sport.

Denny Hamlin said putting multiple breaks into a race would take away the driver's skill on a long run – and that would create "more fluke winners and fluke champions."

"If you start affecting the competition like that, that is analogous to stopping a basketball game if the score gets too far apart and putting the score back even," Carl Edwards said. "That, to me, is not what auto racing is about."

Edwards, seemingly the voice of reason on this topic, said the idea of manipulating the race with cautions was a "dangerous road to go down." Uneventful races, Edwards said, just happen as a natural part of competition.

"If it makes the race a little bit more boring, we get a little bit less sponsorship dollars or a few less people in the seats, that's just the way it is," he said. "That's real competition. You can't fabricate competition, I don't think."

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