It was completely normal … and yet in another way, it also was wholly unprecedented.
In untangling what happened between the first and second stages Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, it’s best to start here: NASCAR officials believe they applied the letter of the law.
After leader Ryan Blaney took the yellow flag that began on Lap 58, there were two full laps remaining in Stage 1. NASCAR’s policy is that the pits are closed with two laps left in a stage in order to prevent strategy plays in which only half the field might complete a normal pit cycle (this was determined after consultation with teams to build guidelines for stage racing).
So on its face, the yellow flag was administered customarily when Matt Kenseth spun in Turn 4 on Lap 57 with three laps left in the first stage at Michigan.
But there were many layers to what transpired during the laps that bridged the first two stages Sunday, and the cascading events affected several cars with some repercussions that could be felt months later while also underscoring how a race’s rhythm can change in the era of stage racing, which NASCAR introduced last season.
In a Q&A format, here’s what went down at Michigan:
How and why did Kenseth get penalized?
Because he stopped when the pits were closed to change the flat tires on his No. 6 Ford. Kenseth fell two laps down while limping around the 2-mile oval to enter the pits and then exiting again as the stage finished under green.
The penalty for entering a closed pit is to restart at the end of the longest line. But Kenseth also was held a lap for taking the wavearound (getting a lap back under the yellow to start Stage 2) before serving the penalty, which is against the rules.
This, however, wasn’t listed on NASCAR’s official penalty report because it was viewed as a scoring correction. “He ended up getting a lap up on the field artificially, and we had to get that back,” Cup Series director Richard Buck said after the race.
Did NASCAR err during the caution sequence?
Yes, though only briefly.
Teams initially were informed that there would be a “quickie yellow,” i.e. a term that means the pits will be open as the caution period commences (the pits normally are closed for at least a lap after a yellow). Buck said the mistake was realized almost immediately, and the pits were closed before any cars reached the entrance.
Were the pits actually closed earlier than normal?
As noted, NASCAR usually closes the pits with two laps remaining in a stage. That announcement is usually made on NASCAR’s radio channel when the leader crosses the line to begin the penultimate lap of the stage.
But in this case, the announcement that the pits were closed was made much earlier. Buck explained that this was because of a “dynamic situation” with the imminent end of a stage.
Though the caution didn’t officially begin until Lap 58, the yellow flag had waved (which freezes the field and establishes pace car speed) before the halfway point of Lap 57. Because there were still more than three laps remaining then in the stage, the announcement to close the pits was made nearly a lap earlier than typically.
But it also should be noted there are some crew chiefs who probably would regard NASCAR’s interpretation of “two laps to go” in this case as too liberal.
A stricter interpretation of “two laps to go” would mean when Lap 58 is completed (according to the Rule 10.9.1.1.b: “When the lead vehicle completes this designated lap, two laps prior to completing a Stage, except for the Final Stage, at the start/finish line, pit road will be closed.”).
So NASCAR kept the pits closed for the entirety of the Lap 58-59 caution. Couldn’t the caution have been extended through the beginning of Stage 2?
Yes. Officials waved the green on the final lap of Stage 1 because they wanted to end the stage at speed because points were on the line for the top 10.
“We’ll try every opportunity that we can to allow the top 10 to cross under heated competition at the start-finish line,” Buck said. “ And that’s why a lot of times you won’t see us put the yellow out (ending a stage) until the leader is on the back (straightaway). In the stage racing, there’s a lot of dynamics that go into it, and we feel that our checks and balances came into play, and everything came off the way we had explained and done it before in that type of situation.”
NASCAR has ended stages under caution several times before, though, most recently in the April 8 race at Texas Motor Speedway. With four laps remaining in the first stage, there was a heavy crash involving Martin Truex Jr. The ensuing yellow flag lasted nine laps, bridging the first and second stages.
How unusual is a two-lap caution at Michigan?
This was the first two-lap yellow for an on-track incident at Michigan since 2012. In the past 35 years and 70 races at Michigan, this was the 11th two-lap caution. Such short cautions often result from lazy one-car spins, but Kenseth’s car suffered four blown tires and left a trail of sparks – both evidence that the track could have been cluttered.
It certainly would have been understandable if the caution lasted longer than two laps to ensure a full cleanup. In the June 18, 2017 race at Michigan, there was a controversial debris caution at Michigan that lasted five laps.
How unusual is a one-lap restart to end a stage?
It had happened five times in the previous 50 races since the advent of stage racing last season – but Michigan is the first instance in which the pits weren’t opened during the preceding yellow.
There also was a one-lap restart Oct. 15, 2017 at Talladega after a caution for a one-car crash with four laps left in Stage 1 (the pits were opened). And a week later at Kansas Speedway after a one-car crash with four laps left in Stage 2 (the pits were opened).
This year, there have been one-lap restarts for the March 11 race at ISM Raceway (a one-car crash with four laps remaining in Stage 1; the pits were opened) and to end Stage 1 in the April race at Bristol Motor Speedway. That one-lap dash was preceded by a six-lap caution (including a red flag) in which the pits were opened.
Similar to Sunday at Michigan, inclement weather also had a major impact on the Bristol race (whose finish eventually was postponed to Monday).
How did the one-lap restart impact the Michigan race?
Significantly, because it’s a line-sensitive track, and the outside is the preferred groove on a restart. The disparity in restart grooves is common for most Cup races (as is well documented by the Motorsports Analytics site).
At Michigan, the outside line was preferred for restarts. When the green fell on Lap 60, Kurt Busch was on the inside in second (because Blaney chose the outside) and fell five spots on the restart lap, which is a loss of five points. Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch (who fell from seventh to 12th and consequently earned no stage points) also lost positions on the inside.
A few points here and there might not seem like much … until the end of the regular season when they will determine which drivers earn playoff berths and which playoff drivers receive larger playoff point bonuses.
Was Chase Elliott also penalized for pitting too soon at the end of Stage 1?
Yes, as was Bubba Wallace for stopping during the Lap 58-59 caution.
But Elliott’s penalty wasn’t as stiff as it could have been. Though he was sent to the rear (which should have meant starting outside the top 35) before the Lap 66 restart, Elliott restarted in 20th because several cars ahead elected to lay over for the green and give the right of way to the No. 9 Chevrolet (which likely had fresher tires than some of the cars that yielded).
Why is all this important?
Because it underscores the importance of consistent and fair officiating during an increasingly complex era in which governance and rules that are based partly on race strategy can create some highly unique circumstances that might ostensibly seem benign but actually can have a major effect on the results.
And it also raises a fair question: Could some of these parameters be streamlined in a manner that would make race procedures cleaner and easier for crew chiefs, drivers and officials?
Michigan was the second time this season (remember the lack of aggression at Richmond?) when nearly every crew chief played it safe rather than gamble for a checkered flag.
Feel free to blame the reliability of your weather apps as much as you’d like, but the inconvenient truth is that taking two tires – as inexplicably only race winner Clint Bowyer and crew chief Mike Bugarewicz chose to do – before what turned out to be the final restart wasn’t much of a gamble.
Paul Menard already had shown the way 40 laps earlier when he took the lead by staying on track under caution. With a No. 21 Ford that had average speed in the pack, Menard was able to turn much faster laps near the front and unburdened by turbulence.
Why wouldn’t more crew chiefs in the top 10 – particularly those whose drivers had wins (namely Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch) – take a gamble on two tires under threatening skies?
There’s a temptation to conclude that the rise of engineering principles on the pit box has been accompanied by an overreliance on data consumption that results in overthinking scenarios (though to be fair, Bugarewicz also has an engineering degree).
Perhaps too many crew chiefs are trying to apply physics to strategy instead of just relying on their guts.
There is a valid reason for being gun-shy, though: The playoff standings.
With the fewest number of winners (six) through 15 races since 1996, there figures to be as much sensitivity to points racing during the stretch run of the regular season. If Busch, Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. continue to amass victories, the top-15 teams will adjust accordingly with fewer golden-ticket wins available
But if you are a 25th-place team with no hope of cracking the playoff bubble in points by the end of the season, this logic doesn’t apply – particularly when the speed differential from first to 25th seems as large as it’s been in the recent past.
A miracle win is your only shot at a major playoff payday – and let’s remember it worked for Chris Buescher and Front Row Motorsports at Pocono two years ago.
So it’s puzzling again why Sunday’s ominous skies didn’t encourage more backmarker teams to attempt a Hail Mary.
Even by just clogging traffic and increasing the likelihood of a pileup, a quick caution on the restart still could have put an underdog in victory lane.
There were no postrace quotes provided from Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Matt Kenseth, but there also wasn’t much to say about Roush Fenway Racing’s performance.
Though Stenhouse qualified seventh, he finished 29th after a late crash and ran outside the top 10 much of the race. In the fourth race since his return, Kenseth started 19th and finished 33rd and wasn’t a factor before or after the spin.
In a test at Darlington Raceway last week, Kenseth told reporters Roush was making “baby steps” but was lagging behind the team’s pace of improvement. With an off week to regroup, and with Kenseth out of the car for Trevor Bayne at Sonoma Raceway and Daytona International Speedway, this could be a critical spot for Roush’s turnaround.
The most vexing question might be why the team has struggled so mightily while the Ford teams of Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske have excelled this season, crediting a change in NASCAR’s inspection process with optimizing their Fusions.
The success of the aero/horsepower combination in the Xfinity Series last weekend at Michigan makes it likely the rules package (which was a smash hit in the All-Star Race) will find its way into the Cup Series when the circuit returns Aug. 12 to Michigan.
But the momentum for using the package (which has stirred much debate) in the July 14 race at Kentucky Speedway seems to have stalled out after a decision appeared to be looming last week.
The playoffs are off the table for the package. So barring a sharp change in direction, it might be used only at Michigan and the Sept. 9 race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, both tracks where drivers could remain in the throttle for a full lap and increase the efficacy of the aero/horsepower package on enhancing passing opportunities.