Even with seven cautions last week at the Dover International Speedway, including one for a season-high 13-car pileup, the racing season seems to be moving forward with its emergency flashers on.
Lead changes continue to be way down. So is the number of cautions.
There are a lot of reasons being floated for the lack of aggressive action. Some say everyone has a better idea how to prepare and drive the current car. Others say they’re so worried about points they don’t take as many chances. And Kyle Busch insists it’s because NASCAR is home to the best drivers in the world.
Talent and preparation may account for a dramatic drop in cautions, but it does little to explain why there have been 166 fewer lead changes after 13 races compared to a year ago.
“I just think guys are racing smarter,” Jeff Gordon said. “When I look back through the years of my experiences in this sport there have just been certain drivers that you always seem to see in cautions. I think the quality of the drivers and the way they are using their heads, the cars certainly have a lot of grip in them so they don’t get out of shape maybe quite as much as they used to.
“To me there is plenty of side-by-side racing and opportunities for wrecks to happen and they didn’t happen.”
After 13 races last season there were 111 caution periods and 421 lead changes. This year there have been 73 cautions and just 255 passes for the lead.
Last month NASCAR raised the side of the cars by an inch to make them harder to drive. By doing that, the sanctioning body also hoped that would stir things up at the front.
Denny Hamlin called the change a “penny when we needed a dollar.”
Tony Stewart won last year’s championship in a tiebreaker with Carl Edwards. That emphasized the value of every point, which leads to the assumption some are racing for points, not wins.
While crashes save car owners a lot of money – and reduce the risk of injury – it does little to create a lot of interest in the grandstands.
“There is not a point system that NASCAR can devise that is going to make us go out there and wreck race cars,” Edwards said. “There is nothing positive out of wrecking a race car. It hurts your chances at winning the race, which is all of our No. 1 goals when we come to the race track.
“I want to be very clear: no driver is going out there and putting the focus on not wrecking. We go out there and race. I don’t know if you guys have ridden in these race cars but we are driving the hell out of these race cars. We also are learning and understanding that you can’t really plan on winning a race or championship if you are wrecking.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. best exemplifies the current trend. He’s the only driver in the Sprint Cup Series who finish on the lead lap in all 13 races, but running up front has yet to produce a victory. By finishing races and stockpiling points, he’s third in the standings heading into Sunday’s race at the Pocono Raceway, just 10 points behind leader Greg Biffle.
Earnhardt’s also led 87 of 4,288 laps. Not only is he in position to lead the point standings without a win, he could do it by leading just two percent of the total laps.
Jimmie Johnson, his teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, insists that doesn’t mean that he, or anyone else in the series, isn’t pushing hard.
And as the only driver to win five consecutive championships, Johnson also knows points, not entertainment, is the only priority for a race team.
“I am surprised that we don’t have more cautions,” Johnson said. “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. It’s fine if it’s someone else, but when it’s you or your teammates you don’t really dig that. I don’t have the answer. I don’t know where it went.
“I know from on the race track people may think that we are being conservative and racing for points but that’s been the nature of our sport forever. That hasn’t changed any in my opinion.”
The numbers may prove otherwise.