Ryan: How did debris yellows get a green flag? Tracking trash over the past 16 years

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Debris or not debris?

The question plaguing NASCAR after Tony Stewart’s accusation of heavy-handed officiating teetering on race orchestration is a tangled mess to navigate, breaching the lines of credibility, entertainment and safety.

There is a clear line of demarcation indicating when the debris caution trend began, however.

Research by NBCSports.com of every Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race report since 1990 (the first season in which caution reasons were listed for every race on Racing-Reference.info) shows the 2001 season is when yellow flags for unsafe track conditions became standard practice in race officiating.

Since the 2001 Daytona 500, which marked the first race in a new era of national TV contracts and the most recent race in which a driver was killed in NASCAR’s premier series, NASCAR has averaged nearly 63 debris yellows per season, reaching a high of 85 in 2005.

Compare that to the 11-season stretch from 1990-2000, which produced an average of 15 debris cautions per season with a high of 20 in 1994 and a low of 11 in 1999.

That means there have been more than four times the number of debris cautions annually in 21st century NASCAR over the previous century’s final decade.

There haven’t been fewer than 40 debris yellows in a season since 2001 when there were 27 in the 35 races after Dale Earnhardt became the fourth prominent NASCAR driver to die of a skull fracture in 10 months. That helped spur a raft of safety advancements that included SAFER barriers, mandatory HANS device usage and enhanced driver cocoons with carbon-fiber seats and energy-absorbing foam.

But mostly overlooked is that NASCAR also took the liberty of being more aggressive in pausing races to clear the track of perceived hazards.

Where once only debris as blatant as a brake rotor lying in the groove might have necessitated a caution, the standards have expanded to include water bottles, balloons and garbage bags – with officials adamantly defending their decisions by noting they always would err on the side of safety.

It hasn’t quelled accusations from drivers – both publicly and privately – about the capriciousness of debris yellows and whether there’s an ulterior motive to keep the racing tight by re-racking the field for a double-file restart. The final yellow was thrown for debris in five of 13 season finales at Homestead-Miami Speedway (and two of the past three) since the advent of the playoffs.

Stewart’s Twitter outburst Sunday isn’t the first time the three-time champion has assailed NASCAR for debris yellows – in a noted April 2007 rant, he compared the officiating with pro wrestling and said officials were “playing God” – but the timing is notably different.

A decade ago, Stewart was angry after a Phoenix race with four debris cautions, which came on the heels of the only consecutive seasons with 80-plus yellows for debris.

Yet in 2017, NASCAR is on pace for possibly its lowest debris caution total since before Earnhardt’s death.

Through 15 races there have been 12 debris yellows – the lowest number to start a season in 14 years.

Subtract Texas Motor Speedway (which holds the all-time track trash record of seven debris cautions in the November 2014 race and is the annual leader with an average of 2.5 over the past 29 races), and there have been eight debris yellows in 2017, which is on par with the average of 7.8 over the first 15 races in the 1990-2000 seasons. The 2016 season also marked a six-year low for debris yellows with 51.

So is Stewart’s ire still justified in light of these declines?

Yes, because debris cautions should be on the wane regardless.

The debut of stage racing in ’17 has guaranteed at least two caution periods per race (and perhaps more next season) that ostensibly are to award points to the top 10 but also could be used to clear the track. Those yellows essentially produce the same outcome as a debris caution – a pause in the action (not because a car was damaged) followed by a restart.

It’s reasonable for drivers and teams to expect NASCAR to be more inclined to let a race naturally unfold with two predetermined breaks that allow for track maintenance. With the addition of a 5-minute clock on repairing damage, it also is logical there should be fewer wounded cars littering the track with jagged sheet metal or busted parts.

As noted by Steve Letarte and Parker Kligerman in a NASCAR America discussion Monday, it also is valid to ask whether NASCAR is using the most optimized technology to locate and classify debris on track. If transparency would help defuse the implication (by Stewart and others) that officials are tampering with a race’s rhythm to produce more scintillating action, NASCAR should consider releasing detailed explanations of the debris, possibly with visual evidence.

But the easiest way to end the controversy over debris yellows simply is by reducing them – and living with consequences that might be negligible anyway. Managing risk makes sense, but it also is a tricky line to walk with auto racing’s inherent danger.

How many times have drivers or fans been injured over the past 16 years by a piece of debris being hit – or in the 52 prior years when cautions to clean the track were much more infrequent?

Applying consistent criteria is difficult because debris cautions always will remain a judgment call – but there is opportunity to use greater discretion in keeping the yellow flag holstered unless incontrovertible evidence exists of a lurking danger, particularly late in the race.

Ultimately, it comes down to this: How do you strike the most judicious balance between upholding the sanctity of races while ensuring the safety of drivers?

That is the question.

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After being critical of Kyle Larson’s inability to close out races on restarts earlier this season here, kudos to the Chip Ganassi Racing driver for pulling it off from the nonpreferrred line at Michigan International Speedway.

The ineffectiveness of the bottom lane on the 2-mile oval Sunday did illustrate an unintended consequence of track treatment in the current era of VHT and tire-dragging machines to improve traction. It seems all of the work on the Michigan surface might have made the outside line too good Sunday.

That bears remembering as tracks continue to be proactive with trying to facilitate passing.

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Nothing says peaceful like a relaxing weekend of wine tasting in the picturesque solace of Napa Valley – but in NASCAR, this is usually the time of the year when the chatter over contracts gets cranked up.

Silly Season has hit a fever pitch before in Sonoma, where a more limited schedule of track activity, along with increased access and time for a bottle of Cab, seems conducive to setting tongues to wagging.

In 2008, word began to leak that Mark Martin was headed to Hendrick Motorsports to replace Casey Mears. Five years ago, news began to spread on race day about Matt Kenseth’s impending departure from Roush Fenway Racing (which broke a few days later).

There are no imminent signs of wildfire breaking this week, but there are enough possibilities (and beat reporters Jenna Fryer and Bob Pockrass floated a few more this week) to watch the kindling while the vino flows around the bonfires this weekend.

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Jeff Gordon (a record nine road-course victories) and Tony Stewart (seven) have retired. Marcos Ambrose (two-time winner at the Glen) and Carl Edwards (Sonoma 2014 winner) are gone.

Who are the Cup road course experts now?

AJ Allmendinger would rank high on the list, but it’s hard to look past Joey Logano, who has four straight top fives on road courses (including a 2015 win at Watkins Glen International), Kyle Busch (four road-course wins) and Denny Hamlin, who was a final-turn mistake away from sweeping the road courses in 2016.

The right-turn narrative centered (with good reason) on Gordon and Stewart for so long, it seems odd to put that trio in the conversation for road-course greatness, but their results prove they deserve it.

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If you’re keeping track – and we can’t blame you for having lost count given the preponderance of binkies, diapers and strollers in the motorhome lot over the past decade – the birth of Trevor Bayne’s second child and the impending arrival of Logano’s first will push the number of kids born to active Cup drivers since 2007 to more than 30 by the end of the season.

During the baby boom, 19 drivers have become fathers while racing in Cup. The first in that timeframe was Jeff Gordon, whose daughter, Ella, turned 10 this week.

Aric Almirola leaves New Hampshire frustrated after third-place finish

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LOUDON, N.H. — Aric Almirola’s first top-five finish of the season was greeted a forced smile.

After leading 42 laps and feeling he “had the best car hands down,” a slow pit stop and a poor restart prevented Almirola from ending his 138-race winless streak Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Instead, he had to settle for a third-place finish

“You would think I’d be really excited to run top five and I’m not,” Almirola said. “We had the best car hands-down. There’s no doubt in my mind. We gave it away on pit road and then I gave it away again on the restart. I spun the tires on the restart and didn’t even give myself a fighting chance, so I’m just really frustrated.”

It continues Almirola’s season of near misses.

He was about a mile from winning the Daytona 500 when a bump from Austin Dillon sent him into the wall.

Last month at Chicagoland Speedway, Almirola was fast, leading 70 laps but two loose wheels doomed him to a 25th-place finish.

Sunday, Almirola was leading with less than 45 laps to go. A caution on Lap 258 brought the field to pit road and Almirola lost the lead. He exited pit road third.

“It’s just frustrating,” Almirola said. “They say you’ve got to lose some before you win some and I feel like we’ve lost some now and it’s time to stop it and go to Victory Lane.”

On the restart, Almirola spun his tires and was seventh before he got back around the track, losing four spots.

“Kyle (Busch) just went a lot sooner in the restart zone than I anticipated,” Almirola said. “I was trying to roll up to the restart zone. When he took off, I kind of pushed the throttle down and spun the tires and didn’t get a good start.”

What drivers said after New Hampshire

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Kevin Harvick — Winner: “I just didn’t know if I was gonna get there at the end and I felt like that was my best opportunity to do what I had to do to win. I didn’t want to wreck him, but I didn’t want to waste a bunch of time behind him. I just got to thank everybody on this No. 4.”

Kyle Busch — Finished 2nd: “You know, it’s racing. We had a really, really poor performance today. Our Interstate Batteries Camry just wasn’t there – it wasn’t there all weekend. We kept fighting the same things all weekend long and we never make any gains on it all through practice and we kind of struggled with it through the race and Adam (Stevens, crew chief) made some really, really good calls – some really good adjustments to just try to keep improving on it. My pit crew was flawless. They gained us all those spots on pit road to get us out front to get us in that position – to have a shot to go after the win – and, you know, we controlled the restart and drove away by a little bit, but we weren’t the best car on the long run. All them SHR (Stewart-Haas Racing) cars were really, really good today. They were all fast, so it was going to be hard to hold them off and I was just kind of backing up and, you know, three, four, five corners in a row and with a faster car, I’m not sure he (Kevin Harvick) had to do it, but he did. It’s fine. How you race is how you get raced, so it’s fine.”

Aric Almirola — Finished 3rd: “You’d think I’d be more excited to run top five – and I’m not. We had the best car, hands down. There’s no doubt in my mind. And we gave it away on pit road and then I gave it away again on the restart – spun the tires. Didn’t even give myself a fighting chance.”

Martin Truex Jr. — Finished 4th: “We were fast early. Just VHT wore off and I was no good anymore. A couple guys – specifically the SHR (Stewart-Haas Racing) cars – man, they got rolling there about midway through the race and we just pretty much crapped, so couldn’t ever fix it and we had one set of tires that was funny and on that one run there it was wheel hoping real bad, I just – I couldn’t hang onto it, so we lost some spots there, but pit crew kept us in the game. We had a good stop there at the end that gave us a shot. We just didn’t have the speed there after a few laps. We tried hard, but we just can’t quite figure out the second half of this thing, but when we do we’re going to be in good shape.

Chase Elliott — Finished 5th: “I was shocked, to be honest with you, that we ran even that good. Our whole NAPA group did a great job overnight. I really have no idea where that came from. I hope it wasn’t dumb luck. Hopefully we can keep it rolling because it’s really nice to be able to go up there and lead some laps. I know it wasn’t the right part of the race, but still, leading laps for us is big compared to what we’ve been doing. I’m proud of the effort. I appreciate everybody’s effort back at Hendrick and the chassis shop and engine shop and Chevrolet and all the folks that are working hard to try to get better. We took a step in the right direction.”

Ryan Newman — Finished 6th: “Yeah, it was a good rebound from yesterday. The entire weekend they definitely stepped it up. It was a good run for our Chevy Accessories Chevy Camaro. The guys did a good job in the pits today, that was nice to see, we have been struggling a little bit there. Just proud of everybody. Not the end result that we want, but a huge improvement and that is something we want. We will keep digging.”

Ryan Blaney — Finished 7th: “It was a challenging day for our Menards/Sylvania Ford Fusion team. We had good speed early, but needed to make sure adjustments to have a chance at the win. We had two things not go our way on pit road, but we fought back for a solid finish.”

Joey Logano — Finished 9th: “We struggled today. We had okay fire-off speed but overall, our Shell-Pennzoil Ford just fell off too early in the run. I fought loose most of the day with a car tucked in behind me on corner entry and at times it was too tight in the center. We got a couple of stage points and a top-10 finish, but we need to get faster now that we’re closing in on the playoffs.”

Jimmie Johnson — Finished 10th: “I think top 10 is where we need to be. Top five right now on sheer speed is something we are achieving and trying to get to. We scored some great points in the stages. … All-in-all we had a good day, always could be better, but a nice solid step forward.”

Alex Bowman — Finished 11th: “We really struggled. We were 10 out of 10 plowing tight, had the track bar maxed out all the way up, all the rear brake I could stand and doing everything I could to try to get the thing to turn, it just wasn’t going to turn. Hate it. I hate that we unloaded with so much speed and just kind of I guess didn’t go the right way or the track changed on us, but really proud of Greg (Ives, crew chief) and everybody for getting the car better there at the end. Had a good restart there and almost got a top 10. It could have been a lot worse.”

Denny Hamlin — Finished 13th: “No doubt. Yeah, I mean, there’s several different approaches, several different things I tried to do inside the car to get the front to turn. Just would not turn. Does it for a couple laps in open track, but once I get in traffic it just plows through the front – touch the gas and it plows through. I can’t keep it one lane, so it’s a struggle with balance. I think our cars have speed, we just have to get our – do the best to get our setup on there that we can be aggressive with.”

William Byron — Finished 14th: “Yeah, I mean it was okay. I thought at the beginning of the race we kind of just got really loose in (to turns) which made it really hard for us to hold position. And then I felt like once we got that back out of it we just had that one weak run and once we got that back out of it we were pretty good again. Just kind of missed it that one run and hard to make up track position after that.”

Austin Dillon — Finished 21st: “The Dow Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 was loose on entry to start the race, but a pit stop for four tires, fuel and adjustments definitely improved the car’s handling. We kept up with changing track conditions through adjustments in the pits throughout the race, and ended up with a pretty good handling Camaro ZL1. We were posting top-10 lap times during most of the race and running in eighth when we ended up with a loose wheel and had to make an unscheduled pit stop under green flag conditions. It cost us the lead lap. It’s a shame because we had a rocket ship but couldn’t do anything with it. I’m proud of the guys for building a really fast car. We are on the right track.”

Ty Dillon — Finished 23rd: “This GEICO Camaro ZL1 was incredibly fast today. It was one of the best pieces that we have brought to the racetrack all year. I hate that my restart violation at the start of Stage 2 put us behind. My crew chief made every strategy call that he could to keep us in the game and get laps back, but we never could get back ahead. I have no doubt that this was a top 10 car, and I’m disappointed that we couldn’t show everyone that. But, we’re still only halfway through the season with a lot of racing left. We can’t and won’t let ourselves get down. We will put one of these races together from start to finish here soon.”

Brad Keselowski — Finished 32nd: “We had a disappointing day for sure. I don’t know if I used too much brake trying to keep up or what. We’ll go on to Pocono and try to get a win there next week.”

Clint Bowyer — Finished 35th: “It just sucks. First and foremost, I hate that for my teammate. It was his first win and he was dominating the race. I was trying to nurse it around. Something in the left-rear was broke and no more than Brett (Griffin, spotter) told me, ‘we’re having trouble, let’s just get off the track,’ and I was kind of thinking the same thing. Literally, as he was saying that and I’m thinking it, something broke on the right side and away it went. That sucks. I hate it for him.”

AJ Allmendinger — Finished 36th: “I think Ryan Newman got into the side of me pretty early at the start of the race. I was kind of nervous about it there was no smoke in the car though, so I thought we were okay. And then we went back green and, on the restart, it just felt like the car was moving around a lot and down the front straightaway I felt it go. I tried everything I could do to slow the car down to get it stopped, but there was nothing I could do. Usually when you hit here you hit big and just disappointed. We have had a rough few weeks. Obviously, Daytona was okay, but other than that is has been a rough few weeks.”

Chase Elliott ‘shocked’ with New Hampshire top five

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After the end of a long, wet day, Chase Elliott was “shocked” with how he fared in Sunday’s Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver placed fifth, earning his first top five and top 10 on the 1.058-mile track in five starts.

That was after Elliott claimed his first stage win of the season, winning Stage 2 over Kurt Busch and Martin Truex Jr.

Elliott, who started 10th and finished Stage 1 in second, led a season-high 23 laps after passing Truex for the lead on Lap 132.

In the previous 19 races Elliott had led only 19 laps.

“I was shocked, to be honest with you, that we ran even that good,” Elliott said. “Our whole NAPA group did a great job overnight. I really have no idea where that came from. I hope it wasn’t dumb luck. Hopefully we can keep it rolling because it’s really nice to be able to go up there and lead some laps. I know it wasn’t the right part of the race, but still, leading laps for us is big compared to what we’ve been doing.”

The top five is the first for Hendrick Motorsports since Elliott placed fourth at Sonoma Raceway four races ago. Before that, Jimmie Johnson had the most recent top five in the Coke 600 in May.

“I’m proud of the effort,” Elliott said. “It was a huge points day for us. Obviously, we’d love that win to not have to worry about it. But, we got 19 points between the two stages, that’s 19 positions on-track, and that’s a lot. Anything can happen in these next few weeks and to have all you can get is really important.”

Through 20 races Elliott has five top fives and nine top 10s.

Elliott leaves New Hampshire 13th in standings, two points behind Johnson.

Johnson ran in the top five late in the first stage after he, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Jamie McMurray and Matt Kenseth did not pit during the competition caution that waved on Lap 35 (since they had stopped earlier).

Johnson placed third in Stage 1 and eighth in Stage 2 before finishing in 10th. It’s his first top 10 in six races and the first time Hendrick has had two drivers in the top 10 since Sonoma.

“I think top 10 is where we need to be,” Johnson said. “Top five right now on sheer speed is something we are achieving and trying to get to. We scored some great points in the stages. … All-in-all we had a good day, always could be better, but a nice solid step forward.”

Kyle Busch on contact from Kevin Harvick: ‘How you race is how you get raced’

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LOUDON, N.H. — Kevin Harvick didn’t want to wait. Kyle Busch won’t forget.

Harvick’s bump-and-run of Busch with seven laps left Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway spiced what has the potential to be quite a duel between the two the rest of the season.

“How you race is how you get raced,” Busch said after his runner-up finish to Harvick.

Busch said he felt Harvick didn’t need to be as physical when he was.

“He did that because of Chicago,” Busch said, alluding to the beating and banging Busch and Kyle Larson had on the last lap of that race. “Everybody has fair game on Kyle Busch that’s for sure when it comes to the fanbase. That’s fine. That’s how they want to race, that’s how I’ll race back.

“It’s just a bump. He didn’t wreck me or anything like that. He did it early enough, but he did it way harder and pushed me out of the groove three lanes and it just takes you so long to recover here that there was no possible way I could get back to him and I was slower anyways so I was in the way. So no harm no foul.”

But Busch won’t forget.

“When you’re slower, you kind of expect that but you also think that you a guy is going to race you fair and clean first,” Busch said. “I don’t think he ever tried to pass me clean once he got there. He just kept hitting me in the rear bumper each and every time it was getting increasingly harder.”

Harvick never intended to wait so long.

“I figured that’s exactly what he was thinking,” he said of Busch. “I knew I needed to take the opportunity as early as I could get it because I knew that he was thinking late and needed to do it when he wasn’t expecting it.

“The more opportunities to get into his wheelhouse, in his thought process, the less chance that you have. He’s that good. If you wait until two or three to go, the entries are going to get shallower, he’s going to start grinding on the brakes a little bit harder. He’s going to put himself in a position to not get hit and he’s going to go on defense and really start to be aggressive. I wanted to do it earlier just to try to catch him off guard.”

Is he worried about how Busch could race him the rest of the regular season and the playoffs?

“You do and you worry about that stuff later,” Harvick said. “It’s not like I wrecked him. It’s the same thing as Chicago.”

Harvick said one has to do all they can to win races, especially against another playoff foe. The victory allowed Harvick to gain five playoff points and kept Busch from collecting those.

“These races are hard to win,” Harvick said. “When you’re in position, it’s one of those things that you have to do what you have to do for your team. You want to do everything you can to not spin him out and not wreck him and just make it as clean as possible and try to accomplish the bump and run. Today we were able to accomplish it well and win the race.”

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