Pit road rules change under caution flag

Updated: July 10, 2004, 6:11 PM ET
Associated Press

JOLIET, Ill. -- Recognizing that complicated rules changes have led to new problems, NASCAR president Mike Helton said Saturday the series will return to its old way of scoring cars on pit road under a caution.

The positions of the cars on the track will be ``frozen'' once the yellow flag waves, but Helton said pit lane will now be active. The change is effective immediately, and will affect all three of NASCAR's top series.

``That's how we used to do it, and it's pretty black-and-white,'' Helton said.

Unlike many racing bodies, NASCAR does not revert back to the order of the last completed green-flag lap when there's a caution. Drivers used to race to the finish line when a yellow flag came out, but NASCAR scrapped that practice last fall for safety considerations.

Instead, NASCAR decided to ``freeze the field'' under caution. The change has caused much debate -- and confusion -- over how to freeze the drivers' position, and Helton was forced to apologize after drivers at the MBNA 400 in Dover ran 24 laps under caution while officials struggled to figure out the correct order of cars.

Under the change announced Saturday, a car pitting behind the start-finish line when the caution comes out must reach that line before the lead car gets to the same point on the track. If it doesn't, it loses a lap to the leader.

Cars pitting in front of the start-finish line have to reach the pit road exit line before the lead car reaches the same point on the track to stay on the lead lap. Antennas and cameras will be used to ensure proper scoring.

And speeding during a caution period, whether on the track or on pit road, won't be tolerated, Helton said.

``If the leader on the racetrack does not reasonably slow down, then he'll be penalized by starting at the tail end of the longest line,'' Helton said. ``If you speed to beat the leader ... you'll lose that opportunity to get back ahead of him and you'll also be at the tail end of the longest line.

``We're not penalizing anybody a lap for speeding,'' Helton added. ``The speeding penalty is the same. The question becomes is whether or not you get to maintain that lap ahead of the leader or if you have to go behind him.''

Helton also said NASCAR has been looking ``very, very hard,'' at going to some version of what's called a green-white-checkered finish. When the white flag signifying one lap to go is waved, following a late caution flag, drivers would be assured a certain number of racing laps to the finish.

``The compromise of the pros and cons of green-white-checkereds is a balance we've had to look at and decide which is better,'' Helton said. ``Certainly there's a willingness to change if something's not right. But I think NASCAR's typical style of doing things is to try to get it such that in just two or three weeks we're not going to change it again.''

Four of the last nine NASCAR Nextel Cup races have ended under caution, meaning the drivers did not get to race to the finish but ended the day driving slowly behind the pace truck. That didn't make the drivers or the fans happy.

Fans were particularly enraged with the finish under caution at Talladega. Under NASCAR's new ``freezing the field'' rule, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was first posted to the front when the caution came out on lap 184 of the 188-lap race. But replays showed Jeff Gordon's No. 24 Chevrolet was about three-quarters of a car length ahead, and he was put in front.

With fans booing and throwing beer cans and food onto the track, Gordon drove slowly to the finish behind the pace truck and just ahead of Earnhardt.

``That's not what caused us to change our minds,'' Helton said. ``What's causing us to change it is the multitude of fans who were civil enough not to throw stuff but said, `Hey look, it would be nice if these things finished under green.' And we agree with them. It would be nice.''

The truck series is currently NASCAR's only series that has the green-white-checkered rule.


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press