If you have a GWC rule, no race should ever end under the yellow. Period
In a race that was shaping up to an epic conclusion, Joey Logano won the 2015 Daytona 500 a half lap short of the overtime distance. With cars spinning up and down the backstretch, NASCAR felt it had no choice but to throw the yellow flag and bring the race to a conclusion. The sentiment for safety is admirable but to end the race under those circumstances is senseless. One of NASCAR's best twitter follows, @TheOrangeCone, said it best; if you have a green-white-checkered rule, no race should ever end under the yellow.
This is no indictment of Logano. He ran a brilliant race and “Sliced Bread” won the race under the rules as they are. He may well have been able to hold of the Chevrolets of Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. The duo had momentum but there are no guarantees when the Daytona 500 trophy is on the line.
Daytona 500 race highlights
No, the issue here is NASCAR's one-size-fits-all approach to overtime. Whether the series is a two and a half mile superspeedway like Daytona or the half mile paper clip at Martinsville, NASCAR's approach to overtime is the same. They waive the green flag and if the field makes it around a single lap, waive the white flag. At that point, the next flag that waives (whether a caution flag due to accident or the checkered flag due to completing a lap) ends the race.
To be fair, the system is light years ahead of what NASCAR used for decades. Their opinion on the matter was always that they present a race to a set distance and no matter the circumstances, the race ended at that distance. The possibility of a last lap pass was irrelevant; the race winner was whomever was up front at the end. Countless races ended under the yellow flag- including Dale Earnhardt senior's emotional 1998 Daytona 500 victory.
The addition of a green-white-checkered finish was designed to give fans a decisive winner. The system was later expanded to up to three attempts at the full finish, again with the thought being that fans want to see someone actually win a race as opposed to having it handed to them after a wreck. It was a clear example of NASCAR responding to an obvious problem and presenting a solution that made sense.
Watch Dale Sr. win the caution-shortened 1998 Daytona 500
There have always been holes in the system. The most obvious of these occurred again at Daytona. With so little time remaining and so much on the line, the likelihood of another caution is high. That chance is magnified by tracks where the cars compete so close together. By declaring that the race is over with a caution on the white flag lap, NASCAR puts its flagmen in an impossible position. Do they throw the yellow in the interests of safety- risking a fan backlash? Or do they hold onto the flag a moment too long and risk having someone injured as a result of the delay?
The postrace discussion on twitter focused on NASCAR's desire for safety. Coming just a day after Kyle Busch's violent wreck, it's understandable that the series did not want a similar outcome in the 500. Yet those who supported the current rules ignored one obvious possibility. Why does the race have to end due to the caution flag? With GPS technology, NASCAR can pinpoint the position of each car on the track at the instant the yellow comes out. The only thing preventing NASCAR from lining up for a second attempt is its own insistence that, “the next flag ends the race.”
NASCAR's overtime also ignore the logistical reality of track length. At both Daytona and Talladega, the cars are not even up to full speed at the end of their green flag lap. It generally takes a lap and a half for the restricted engines to sing out in full song. Meanwhile, the cars would have turned five laps at Martinsville or Bristol in going the same distance. The result is that a green-white-checkered finish is a vastly different creature depending on the track.
Two changes could be made tomorrow that would both enhance safety and provide fans with the decisive finish NASCAR seeks. First, the white flag lap should be treated no differently than the initial green flag lap. If circumstances warrant a caution then put the yellow flag out and freeze the field. Line the field up and continue the current process of making three attempts at a checkered flag finish. This would ensure that track officials are considering nothing but the safety of their competitors when deciding whether or not a yellow flag is warranted. They shouldn't have to worry about being second-guessed for the decision. By eliminating the “next flag ends the race” rule, that kind of criticism would be gone.
Second, NASCAR's overtime should be for a set distance. The whole point of a green-white-checkered finish is to enable the race to reach a conclusion decided by the drivers on the track. A two lap sprint at short tracks like Bristol and Martinsville lasts little more than 30 seconds and makes the result entirely dependent on jumping the restart. Instead of the current lap-based format, set the overtime distance at somewhere between five to ten miles. By rounding down where needed (i.e. the distance would be three laps at the 2.66 mile Talladega superspeedway), the distance would still be a limited one but would make the result a viable one.
Under the current safety-conscious environment, NASCAR isn't going to head back to its old rules. Prior to the green-white-checkered, races could end under caution but cars could also race back to the flagstand under the yellow flag. Had those rules been in play at the 500 there's no way to know what might have happened. Debris and fluid from Justin Allgaier's car was all over the track and a car that hit that mess at full speed could have done severe damage to both itself and the rest of the field. That dangerous possibility would have been magnified had the drivers known that there was no green-white-checkered to follow and that the first to reach the flagstand would be the Daytona 500 champion.
So while the present system has issues, going back is a non-starter as well. The green-white-checkered innovation was a good idea and one whose time has come for all professional racing leagues. But if you're going to have that kind of system in place, shouldn't the race always end with a checkered flag?