Dr. Diandra: NASCAR Cup Series cautions on the rise

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We’re one-third of the way into the NASCAR Cup Series season, and we’ve run every type of track we’ll visit this year. Twelve races in also means we’ve accumulated enough data to start examining trends.

The trend that caught my eye is the high number of cautions in 2022. I show them below, by race and type.

A stacked bar chart summarizing the cautions in 2022 through the twelfth race of the season

We’ve had a total of 110 cautions in 12 races. Twenty-five of those cautions are competition or stage-end cautions, which leaves us with 85 unplanned or ‘natural’ cautions. That’s significantly higher than last year’s 59 natural cautions after 12 races.

To be fair, we’ve run one more superspeedway this year than last year at this time. Atlanta contributed an average of five cautions in the last five races. This year, it had 11. But that’s only six more cautions. And Martinsville was eight cautions below its five-year average in 2022.

We’ve had 10 more accidents this year (49) than there were last year at this time.

Even more interesting: We’ve had 19 spins in 12 races, which is only one less than in the entire 2021 season. We’ll likely surpass last season’s spin total in the next race or two.

Last year, we had no stalls in the first 12 races. This year, we’ve got seven. We’ve also got three more debris cautions than last year at this time.

The biggest new variable this year is, of course, the Next Gen car. The higher caution numbers may reflect a learning curve. Or, the Next Gen car might be that much harder to driver than the Gen-6 model. If the former is the case, the caution rate should slow down as the season progresses. If the trends of the first third of the season continue, we’re looking at a possible 255 total natural cautions for the 2011 season — compared to 172 last year.

Who’s involved in cautions?

A note about how NASCAR records accidents, spins and stalls: Last-lap incidents that don’t produce a caution aren’t included in the official totals. Also, remember that being involved in wreck or a spin does not necessarily mean the driver caused it.  Below, I show the accidents, spins and stalls for drivers who have run all 12 races this year.

A stacked vertical bar chart showing accidents, spins and stalls by driver for the first 12 races of 2022

There’s no obvious pattern to which drivers are struggling most (or have the most bad luck) this year.

The three largest contributors to the total are Austin Cindric (eight accidents), Brad Keselowski (seven accidents and one spin) and Erik Jones (seven accidents and one stall. That’s a Daytona 500-winning rookie, a mid-career driver with two race wins and a past series champion. Keselowski only had 12 accidents in all of 2021.

The next four drivers each have seven combined accidents/spins/stalls. They include two past champions (Kurt Busch and Chase Elliott), one very experienced driver (Denny Hamlin), and rookie Todd Gilliland. Last year, Hamlin was involved in nine accidents and one spin over the entire season. Although most of the races this year have been won by younger drivers, this data shows that some younger drivers are adapting better than others.

A history of cautions

To eliminate the possibility that last year was an anomaly, let’s examine the last 20 seasons of NASCAR Cup Series racing. I include only natural cautions to eliminate the differences introduced with stage racing.A stacked vertical bar chart that shows the numbers of natural cautions per season from 2002 to the incomplete 2022 season.

Although caution numbers vary from year to year, the data show a clear overall downward trend. In the last 20 years, the series has had a maximum of 368 natural cautions in 2005 and a minimum of 166 in 2018.

The most obvious trend is a significant decrease in debris cautions. NASCAR implemented the damaged vehicle policy in 2017 that requires teams to fix cars well enough to make minimum speed within a specified period of time (now six minutes). The Cup Series had the most debris cautions in 2005 with 89. That’s an average of 2.47 debris cautions per race.  Since implementing the damaged vehicle policy, the series has never had more than 21 in a season.

The number of accidents has decreased overall, but that’s more of a general trend than it is it tied to a policy or equipment change. In 2005, drivers tallied 199 accidents. In 2012, drivers managed the same number of races with only 104 accidents. 2012 was a the minimum in a series of four years with continuously declining caution rates. The Gen-6 car took to the track in 2013, but that was also the year the series set a track record of 15 cautions at Kansas and had a 17-caution race at Martinsville.

Spins also decreased over the years, from 73 in 2002 to 20 (in 2016, 2017, and 2021.)

Since 2018, the series hasn’t had more than 189 natural cautions in any year.

What about just 12 races?

To really narrow our comparison down, I’ve plotted the same data for the first 12 races of each season. You can’t predict the outcome of a season based on a smattering of races, but if you compare this plot with the full season data, you can see that it’s already showing the major trends.

A stacked vertical bar chart that shows the numbers of natural cautions in the first 12 races of each season from 2002 to the incomplete 2022 season.

The Cup Series has had the highest number of cautions in any year since 2016 — and it is only four short of that.

This week, the series is racing at Kansas Speedway, its first visit to a 1.5-mile non-superspeedway track since Las Vegas in March. Before the 2022 race, Las Vegas had an average of 6.0 cautions over the last five races. This year saw double that number.

Kansas has an average of 7.6 cautions over the last five races. Will we see a significant increase over that number in this week’s race? Or have teams learned enough that the rate of cautions will start decreasing?

If the Next Gen car is increasing cautions simply because it’s harder to drive, the series may return to season-high caution levels we haven’t seen since the damaged vehicle policy took effect. If this is simply drivers and teams on a learning curve, the caution rate should start to slow down.

Questions

What do you want to know? Send your questions to ask ( at) buildingspeed (dot)org and I’ll try to answer them in future columns.