Late debris caution at California was called for

Phantom cautions to tighten up a race for a good finish? The conspiracy theories are out there. Rusty Wallace got a behind-the-scenes look at how NASCAR makes its calls.

Updated: February 28, 2007, 5:41 PM ET
By Rusty Wallace | Special to ESPN.com

You know the scenario. Just a handful of laps to go in a Nextel Cup race and the yellow flag flies.

It's another track debris caution, and the conspiracy theorists come out in droves accusing NASCAR of trying to set up a tight finish for the TV broadcast.

Jimmie Johnson
Donald Miralle/Getty ImagesJimmie Johnson was going along fine until a late caution flag flew in California.

I can tell you that the one at California Speedway on Sunday was legitimate. The drivers may not have liked it, and when I was driving I used to ask myself all the time, "What debris? Why is this caution out? I don't see anything!"

Go inside the NASCAR control center and you get a different perspective.

My race weekends -- at least until the final 17 Cup races of the season -- are spent doing commentary on the Busch race on Saturday, and then I'm waiting around the track and watching the Nextel Cup race on Sunday just so I can go on "SportsCenter" that night.

When NASCAR president Mike Helton asked me if I wanted to sit behind him in the hauler and see what NASCAR officials see, I didn't hesitate to take him up on that.

What do NASCAR officials see?

Things the fan at the track and the audience on TV can't. Digital cameras are focused all over the track and officials are looking for things others wouldn't. One of the things they are looking for is debris.

Every time the NASCAR officials said there was debris on the track Sunday, there was debris on the track. I can promise you on the last caution -- one that seemed to cost leader Jimmie Johnson -- there was debris on the track.

It can blow away or be knocked down the track and out of the way, but if it's there, NASCAR has to get rid of it. We're not talking about paper wrappers, but metal parts -- many of which could have grease on them -- that are a real hazard to drivers.

I heard the whispers my whole career that NASCAR would throw a late caution to try to bunch up the pack and make a more exciting finish. Maybe it happened in the past, but I don think it's happening now because there is so much at stake for NASCAR's credibility, and it would simply be too easy to catch them if there was nothing on the track.

The caution during the California race between Laps 227 and 230 was legitimate. There was debris on the track.

Empty seats in California
Why were there empty seats in California for the Auto Club 500? I don't have the answer, but I think I have an answer.

It's not just the Los Angeles market, but I think NASCAR struggles to sell out two races in just about every major market. Atlanta is no different; Charlotte and Fort Worth, Texas, too.

What I hear from fans is the attitude that if they miss this one they can always make the next one later this year. At California Speedway this weekend, you could have instead decided to drive a few hours over to Las Vegas to see a race there two weeks later … and spend the weekend in Las Vegas.

There are so many entertainment options that NASCAR can get lost in the shuffle.

The fall race at Texas Motor Speedway coincided with the opening weekend of the deer-hunting season and a Dallas Cowboys-Washington Redskins game. That's serious competition in that market.

Former Cup champion Rusty Wallace is the lead NASCAR Nextel Cup and Busch Series analyst. You can check out all things Rusty at his constantly updated and upgraded Web site at rustywallace.com.

Former Cup champion Rusty Wallace will provide coverage for ESPN and ABC during this year's IndyCar Series and selected Nextel Cup races. You can check out all things Rusty at his constantly updated and upgraded Web site at rustywallace.com.

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