"Call it what you want, but you've got to have caution flags," Speedway Motorsports Inc. president Bruton Smith told the media before last weekend's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Kentucky Speedway. "You can't just sit there with nothing happening. It ruins the event. It's damaging to our sport."
After a wild ending to Saturday's Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway, not only is Smith's observation as off track as some of the cars that wrecked, it may be an irresponsible suggestion.
While the "big one" has been an accepted part of restrictor plate racing for years, the new problem at hand is the sport's recent emphasis on putting entertainment over the integrity of the race.
The restrictor plate races at Daytona and Talladega are not necessarily representative of all 36 rounds of Sprint Cup racing, but they often produce the two things that fans have been clamoring for this season: major cautions and multiple attempts at green-flag finishes. The first one was the case on Saturday night, when four accidents of six cars or more effectively turned Daytona into an elimination race.
While the race wasn't actually extended to finish under green flag conditions, two of those accidents—the two largest ones, in fact—came in the final ten laps.
The institution of the green-white-checkered finish in 2004 was designed to give the fans an exciting finish at every event, but bunching up the cars under caution often leads to more accidents as multiple drivers fight for the same real estate.
The debate was further intensified on Sunday when the IZOD IndyCar Series race at Toronto ended under caution. The Charlotte Observer's Jim Utter dismissively tweeted that IndyCar fans don't want the green-white-checkered finish "because NASCAR came up with it first."
The result is an interesting catch-22: finish under caution to preserve the original length and integrity of the race, or manufacture a finish for the sake of giving the fans the green flag finish that they feel entitled to at the risk of causing another dangerous, and expensive, accident.
One caters to the racing purists who developed the sport, while the other caters to the newer generation of fans that have made the sport a merchandising force.
Now imagine throwing those mandatory cautions every weekend, like 36 Sprint All-Star Races. Imagine the potential for wrecks, the added cost to team owners and the increased risk of injured drivers, even with safer vehicles. As the old adage goes, "cautions breed cautions."
In other words, NASCAR is caught in the battle between sport versus entertainment. We saw what happens when entertainment—pack racing and green-white-checkered finishes—prevails.
Maybe it's time to put the emphasis back on the integrity of the sport and letting the entertainment develop naturally.
After all, Dale Earnhardt won the 1998 Daytona 500 under caution. Did anybody complain about that ending?