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Fading Sprint Cup cautions stir talk

Drivers balancing desire to win with place in points standings

- dscott@charlotteobserver.com
Saturday, Jun. 02, 2012

The yellow flag has become an endangered species in NASCAR Sprint Cup racing.

Heading into Sunday’s FedEx 400 at Dover International Speedway, the number of cautions on the Cup circuit has been cut by more than one-third – from 106 to 66 (38 percent) – from 2011 to this season. The 2012 average of 5.5 cautions per race is more than three fewer than 2011’s 8.8.

Why have there been so many more – and longer – green-flag runs? Nobody seems to be quite certain. But theories abound.

“I just think guys are racing smarter,” said driver Jeff Gordon. “I think the quality of the drivers and the way they’re using their heads. And the cars certainly have a lot of grip in them so they don’t get out as shape as much as they used to.”

resulted in the fastest race, time-wise, in the event’s history.

The lengthy green-flag runs have come on all kinds of tracks:

•  Texas and Kansas, both 1.5-mile tracks, had two and three caution flags, respectively, on consecutive weeks in April.

•  At 3/4-mile Richmond, there were five cautions – none due to an accident.

•  At 2-mile California, the only caution came on Lap 125 because of rain. The race was red-flagged four laps later.

Last week’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway provided a good example of what’s been happening. There were only five cautions – four of them due to debris on the track and another to a one-car accident involving Travis Kvapil.

Cup points leader Greg Biffle finished fourth at Charlotte and stayed out of trouble the whole way. He said that the lack of cautions hasn’t been because of drivers trying to protect their position in the points standings. Points are harder to come by in the new system instituted by NASCAR in 2011.

“My obligation when I strap into that thing is to win,” said Biffle.

Still, there is a sense from others that some drivers are “points racing” – worrying more about where they are in the standings than racing aggressively to win. Then there’s the common sense angle: Wrecking a car is expensive.

“Guys have always point-raced, smart drivers have,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is fourth in the standings. “The penalty for finishing last, versus the old system, is a lot tougher than it was. You’ve got to keep your car clean and bring it home in one piece. You can’t go out there and cost a lot of money for your owner and other people as well.

“If you go out there and tear up a lot of stuff, it gets you sent out of the sport pretty quick.”

Wrecking, of course, is part of NASCAR’s attraction to its fans. But it’s not something drivers want to do.

“You can’t plan on winning a race or a championship if you are wrecking,” said Carl Edwards. “There is not a points system that NASCAR can devise that is going to make us wreck race cars. We can talk about it all we want, but we are all going to race, not to wreck.”

Of the 66 caution flags shown this season, 41 percent have been due to accidents. Debris on the track have accounted for 30 percent.

“I’m surprised that we don’t have more cautions,” said five-time champion Jimmie Johnson. “When I look around and watch my competitors, we are crossed up, 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.”

And as there is in any group of like-minded people, there is peer pressure.

“You just lose a lot of respect from your peers when you make a lot of dumb mistakes and cause a lot of crashes,” said Earnhardt. “So guys don’t do that any more.”

Scott: 704-358-5889; Twitter: @davidscott14

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