Commentary

Art of causing a yellow flag has evolved over the years

Causing a yellow flag once was a NASCAR tradition, but political correctness and the specter of NASCAR has forced drivers to proceed with caution.

Updated: April 7, 2008, 12:57 PM ET
By Bill Borden | Special to ESPN.com

A considerable amount of discussion has taken place recently about how teammates can help each other improve their positions during the Nextel Cup Chase for the Championship.

[+] EnlargeDale Earnhardt Jr.
Darrell Ingham/Getty ImagesIf you spin out on purpose like Dale Earnhardt Jr., don't talk about it over your radio.

One area of assistance that is frequently overlooked is where one driver causes a yellow flag to be displayed to help his teammate or maybe even himself. Deliberately causing a caution is nothing new. It was an accepted practice in NASCAR long before multi-team operations arrived on the scene.

Back in the mid-1960s and into the early '80s a journeyman driver named Buddy Arrington from Martinsville, Va., raced Chrysler cars in NASCAR's Cup series. He made a pretty good living by qualifying and competing in the various races on the circuit back then, but he also earned some pretty good bonus money and needed parts and equipment by causing cautions at opportune moments in races that would just happen to benefit another well known Chrysler-brand driver who hailed from Level Cross, N.C. Arrington wasn't the only driver back then who was known to assist another driver to get a lap back in return for some future consideration. He was, however, one of the more obvious and notorious ones.

Just for the sake of definition let's review the various types of cautions that can occur.

First, there is the legitimate caution caused by a wreck or blown engine or some other mishap that in some way renders the track unsafe for competition until the problem is corrected. Second, there is the compulsory caution where NASCAR arranges to throw a yellow flag on a predetermined lap in anticipation of a problem such as excessive tire wear that needs to be checked. Both of these types of cautions are legitimate and necessary. However, they are not the only types of cautions you will see during a race.

For the sake of clarity here, please note that when I refer to different "types" of cautions I am referring to the causes or reasons for a caution flag being displayed. It is understood that the displaying of the yellow flag represents the same meaning to the competitors regardless of the reason it is being displayed.

So what are some of the not-so-legitimate reasons that might cause a yellow flag to be displayed during a race?

There is the competitor-induced debris caution whereby a piece of roll bar padding or some other form of debris that is not easily identifiable suddenly and mysteriously appears in the racing groove and forces NASCAR to throw a caution to prevent an accident. A bunch of these cautions occurred several years ago until NASCAR wisely made each team put a team identification on each detachable piece of equipment on their cars. It was a miracle! Those types of cautions virtually disappeared overnight once the debris became traceable to a particular competitor.

Fourth is the self-induced spin that causes NASCAR to throw a caution to avoid having cars crash into each other. While there are a number of variations on this type of caution, the "Lucky Dog" rule change that eliminated racing back to the flag a few years back reduced the advantage or desirability of executing this type of caution.

Although Dale Earnhardt Jr. executed it quite effectively a few years ago at Bristol. That was until he got on his radio and told his crew what he had done. Team radios are monitored by NASCAR so Junior received a penalty for his indiscretion. Prior to the "Lucky Dog" rule being implemented a teammate who was leading the race could slow down and let his teammate pass him before they reached the start-finish line to get a lap back but now the field is frozen once the yellow flag is displayed so that opportunity has been lost.

The fifth type of caution is where you take out one of your competitors accidently on purpose so you can get some badly needed fuel or a set of tires, etc. under a caution versus a green flag stop where you might go down a lap or two in the pits. Plus, depending upon who you crash to cause the caution, you can settle some old scores, gain some more track positions and possibly get some added TV time for your sponsor either during the caution replays or after the race when the competitor that you spun out comes looking for you to say howdy.

Officials prefer not to talk about or define two other types of cautions. One is the beer and potty caution that will be displayed regularly each week to help the track promoter sell more hot dogs and beer, etc. This would also cover the TV caution so the networks can run their commercials.

The other is the competition caution that always seems to appear whenever someone is really starting to stink up the show by running away and hiding from his competitors on the track. It always helps to tighten the field up every once in awhile to make the show more interesting. Both types of cautions are usually caused by some form of phantom debris being spotted in an obscure area of the track.

So, now that we have defined the various reasons for cautions, we can discuss how often they might occur during a particular event. Obviously any number of cautions are caused by accidents or blown engines, etc. during every event. This can vary from very few to somewhere up in the teens, depending upon the track.

A race without cautions can actually be quite boring for the drivers, spotters and fans. There have been a few such races over the years. I was a participant in one at Michigan many years ago when I was spotting for Kyle Petty. I remember that Bill Elliot won that race in a record amount of time but it still seemed like forever to me as a spotter. Being a spotter can be rewarding when you save your driver from crashing or help him find a faster groove, etc. but most of the time it is stressful and boring.

The spotter has to drive the track with his eyes just like his driver does. But the spotter also has to "lead" his driver around the track by watching a short distance ahead to protect him from getting involved in an accident that happens directly in front of him while also visually sweeping the other areas of the track for potential problems.

Additionally, the spotter has to help keep his driver informed about traffic directly around and behind him so he can make safe moves in traffic. The problem with being a spotter is you are concentrating on the race every bit as hard as your driver but he is the one having all the fun out there.

Being a spotter is a thankless job. You sometimes get yelled at by a frustrated driver when you don't keep him properly informed. You worry about missing something that could cause your driver to crash or get hurt, which is worse. So it is rewarding when you can keep your driver out of trouble because that is your job. But when the race goes green for the entire event you can lose focus and cause a problem by missing something if it ever does occur.

One way a teammate could help a fellow driver today is to cause a caution when a competitor has to make a pit stop under the green. Say driver A is leading the race and your teammate -- driver B -- is in the points while you -- driver C -- are out of the hunt. If driver A makes a pit stop under the green it could make him vulnerable to getting caught on pit road if a caution comes out and thereby lose a lap to the field. Then you, as driver C, could cause a caution that would trap driver A down a lap and give your teammate -- driver B -- an advantage.

One way that driver A can reduce the possibility of this occurring is to select his pit stall past the start-finish line so he has completed the lap he was on when he pitted. That way he might be able to get back out on the track before the field comes around to the start-finish line and he could stay on the lead lap even though it would be at the tail end of the lead lap. That is one reason that pit selection can be critical at short tracks where lap times are much quicker. Jeff Gordon won a race earlier this year when his crew chief made an alert call and got him back out on the track before the field could cross the start-finish line and trap him a lap down.

Teammates can block for their Chase teammates or at least make it difficult for a competitor to get by them during a race, but it is much more difficult to do anything today that could be construed as blatant because so many eyes are watching what they do out there. The simple fact that so many more TV cameras are focused on all parts of the track makes it risky to do anything that could incur the ire of NASCAR or a fellow competitor after the event.

There is no question that Nextel Cup drivers are brave and will take risks that exceed the limits of most of us humans. And, most of them are not stupid. Who they are racing against is a very important factor in what they can or will not do out on the track. For example, Matt Kenseth would probably have won the recent Texas race if he had been battling Jeff Gordon instead of Jimmie Johnson for that win.

Kenseth made the comment afterward that he raced Johnson extremely hard believing that Johnson would back off and let him go because of the "big picture." Meaning that Johnson would not take the risk of wrecking while leading the points in the Chase. Gordon, on the other hand, would more than likely have backed off and let Kenseth go to assure he maintained his points lead.

If Kenseth had been racing Kyle Bush instead of Johnson then he probably would have had a whole different attitude because there would have been a higher degree of probability that they both would have ended up in the fence and out of contention.

Age does play a role in bravery sometimes. There is an old joke that defines the perfect race car driver. He has a size 12 shoe and wears a size two hat.

The irony is NASCAR's popularity was built on feuds and rivalries that caused a lot of cautions in the early days. Today it is too politically correct for that to happen.

Bill Borden is a former championship winning crew chief who operated David Pearson's Racing School for many years.