News & Media

Caraviello: Difficult Dover may put green-flag trend to the test

June 02, 2012, David Caraviello,

They call it the Monster for a reason. The high-banked concrete mile surface at Dover International Speedway is among the more punishing facilities on NASCAR's premier circuit, a layout that acts like a short track but produces superspeedway speed. At a place that fast but that narrow, it's not unusual to have massive pileups like the 19-car crash ignited when Jimmie Johnson hit a spinning Dave Blaney in 2004. Somebody gets turned in front of you, there's often no place to go but into the mess.

The Dover track is an intimidating place where there is no such thing as a soft hit, a facility that's made its monstrous reputation on the jaw-clenching experience of going 160 mph in such an enclosed space. Ripping up sheet metal is what it does best. So perhaps there's no better place to put NASCAR's season-long run of green-flag racing to the test than at the big cereal bowl in central Delaware, where the Sprint Cup series competes Sunday.

"I don't know where the cautions have gone."


Mellow yellow

The first 12 races of the season have produced an average of 5.5 cautions for 31 laps. Eight of the past nine races have had a green-flag stretch of at least 105 laps.

• 66 cautions in 12 races
• 38 for accidents
• Tther than Daytona and 'Dega, only 6 involved multiple cars
• 26 for debris
• 1 for weather
• 1 competition

We've seen remarkably clean racing for much of this year in NASCAR's top division, as evidenced by long green-flag runs in recent points races at Darlington and Charlotte. Last weekend's Coca-Cola 600 was one of the fastest ever, interrupted by just five cautions -- four of them for debris, and one for a single-car accident. That continues a trend that began at Fontana (one caution, for rain), and continued into Texas (two cautions, both for debris), Kansas (three cautions, two for debris) and Richmond (five cautions, three for debris and one competition).

Everything in NASCAR is cyclical, and that includes competition, and it's far from unusual to see long green-flag runs at a place like Darlington, where drivers race the track more than one another, or at Charlotte, where the blistering pace set by early leader Greg Biffle last Sunday was reminiscent of the 2004 event where Johnson put nearly the whole field a lap down. And the fans of those drivers wrecked in big multi-car crashes earlier this season at Daytona, Bristol and Talladega -- Jeff Gordon could describe a few of those in vivid detail -- probably aren't complaining that their favorites aren't limping into the garage area with more regularity.

Even so, this current spate of clean and green racing has left some grasping for an explanation. One theory holds that this generation of tire is holding up better, either because of the compounds Goodyear is bringing to the race track, or because teams aren't messing around with camber and air pressure as much as they once did. Another is that the light -- or in the case of this season, nonexistent -- rookie classes of recent years have left Cup fields devoid of the struggling younger drivers that tend to get in the way of their more experienced brethren. Still another goes back to the simplified points system, and drivers perhaps exercising more caution in the second year of the format because of how difficult it can be to make up lost ground in the standings.

* Sound Off: Drivers comment on recent trend of long green runs

"I think that some people got hurt by crashes early on in the year last year, and they weren't able to recover simply because these races are going green, there's not as many wrecks," Denny Hamlin said. "It used to be that in the Chase, you knew you always had a mulligan. Everyone was going to have a bad race. I don't know if you can do that nowadays. There aren't any wrecks. You have to count on someone really blowing up to have a bad day. That's really the only thing that can take someone out of the running. I don't know. I think everyone just recognizes the points system and sees how it works, second year on it. We know you finish in the 30s, it's almost like not even showing up. Five points, that's not much."

Carl Edwards agreed: "When they started those double-file restarts, it felt like we were going to wreck every time there was a caution and had to have a restart. It was unbelievable," he told reporters Friday at Dover. "Now, guys are getting very good at handling the race cars and not risking too much and taking huge chances. Let's be honest, right now a wreck is so bad for your team and your chances at being in the championship hunt that I think guys are just being smarter and racing smarter. I think that is good."

Of course, that sentiment isn't universal, and we didn't exactly see that kind of caution in the Daytona 500, where there were accidents involving four, six, seven and eight cars. We didn't necessarily see it at Talladega, where there were a pair of nine-vehicle pileups. We didn't see it early at Bristol, where seven cars ended up in a wad, or late at Martinsville, where contenders Johnson and Gordon were taken out of the running by a late and impatient three-car crash that altered the complexion of the race. If drivers are indeed being extra careful all of the sudden, they're picking their spots.

"From my own perspective I'm not driving any different this year than I have last or with other points systems," Johnson said at Dover. "It's very similar to what we have had before. ... From my perspective in the driver's seat, when I look around me and watch my competitors, we are crossed up, we are slapping the fence, there is hard racing, there is side-by-side racing. I don't know where the cautions have gone. I'm glad I'm not a part of them."

As with anything, the likely reason -- if there is one, other than a sport with so many moving pieces going through its natural cycles and evolutions -- is unlikely to be simple or obvious. Maybe, with a third of the season in the rear-view mirror and positions beginning to solidify, drivers are using a little more caution in traffic or on restarts. Maybe this current Cup field has matured, given that the last rookie of the year with any real staying power was Joey Logano, now a wizened 22 years old. And maybe this generation of Cup car, which to an outsider looks exceptionally difficult to drive, has been around long enough that competitors have more of a handle on it.

"Myself personally, I remember when I came into the sport, just trying to figure out the cars, trying to keep up with the Hendrick cars, keep up with whoever was fast at the time. I would overdrive my car, go past where you can have that stability, make it through the corner," said Kasey Kahne, last week's winner. "These days, with experience, I don't do that near as often. I still can. If I do, I'd hit the wall, and I've done that. But I think it's just experience and really good drivers and teams. The cars drive awesome. The competition's so strong right now. Just everybody's working really hard. The drivers keep the cars under them. [In the 600] I could have spun out several times and got loose because I just went a little too far with the throttle. I think you just get that feel. The longer you're in the sport, the better handle on the car you get."

Added Kyle Busch: "We all feel like we know what we're doing. We don't have to run over each other anymore to pass. That's why it's a good, clean race. Typically these cars have to be a little bit tighter. It's not as easy to go into the corner and back one in like it used to be with the old car, aerodynamics, stuff like that. It's a good, clean race. You have 43 of the best guys out there doing it every single weekend."

And often, that shows -- whether it's Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski chasing one another down through lapped traffic at Bristol, Gordon and Johnson battling for the lead at Martinsville, three-wide packs in the Sprint All-Star Race or the eat-or-be-eaten nature of last weekend's 600, time and time again this season we've been reminded that it's indeed about racing rather then crashing, and that events don't need 10 cars hooked to the back of wreckers to have some sort of merit. After all, two of last year's biggest hold-your-breath moments were Dale Earnhardt Jr. coming off Turn 4 at Charlotte and Tony Stewart and Edwards battling in the final laps at Homestead, and there was nary a bit of scraped sheet metal between them.

Dover could well change that, given the track's narrow confines and its Talladega-like potential for producing little Big Ones like the 18-car mash-up in 1995 that left the racing surface looking like an automobile salvage yard. Or we could see something like we did last spring, when Kenseth won a Dover race featuring six cautions -- one for competition, one for precipitation, one for debris, and three for single-car spins -- well before these green-flag theories began to spin. It's another reminder that races bereft of multi-car crashes aren't exactly new in NASCAR, and that even a demanding mile-long track doesn't always have to be a monster.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.