How Do NASCAR Cautions Work? (Fully Explained)

Share this article

Caution flags in NASCAR can be confusing. There may be times where you see the yellow flag wave, yet the track conditions can still look ideal with zero wrecked cars. Since more than just wrecks can bring out the yellow, you may wonder how NASCAR cautions work. 

NASCAR cautions occur when there is a crash, debris, or liquid on the track, or to signify the end of a stage. The latter is called a competition caution, and you will see at least 2 of them occur at each event. When the yellow flag waves, the cars must slow to a predetermined speed. 

Below, we will dive into full detail regarding what cautions are in NASCAR and how often they are used. We will also provide historical data outlining past events that saw the most and the fewest cautions. We will also reveal if a NASCAR race can end under caution. 

What Are Cautions In NASCAR?

In NASCAR, crashes and stray debris or substances landing on the track surface is inevitable. It happens in every race, and when this occurs, the yellow flag waves. When a track official waves the yellow flag, also called the caution flag, the cars must slow to a predetermined speed. If they do not slow down immediately they will risk being penalized. 

The most common cautions occur when a car spins or crashes. However, debris can fall from the cars, and NASCAR cannot continue racing under green if there is debris on the track because it can damage front bumpers, fenders, and even tires, which can lead to serious crashes. 

Oil or water can also leak from the cars and onto the track. This will necessitate a caution because spills can create slippery track conditions. Any time the caution flag waves when there is a wreck, debris, a spill, a spin, engine failure, inclement weather, or tire failure, these are called natural cautions, as opposed to competition cautions. 

What Are Competition Cautions In NASCAR?

A competition caution in NASCAR is a planned caution after a specified number of laps. Since 2017, most common competition cautions occur following a race stage, which allows the drivers to take pit stops to change tires, refuel, and prepare for the following stage as if it is a new race. 

There are times when competition cautions occur for other reasons, such as if track conditions are less than ideal, but not in the same way that they will bring out a natural caution. When this occurs, NASCAR will determine how many green flag laps are run between each competition caution. These are not ideal, and they can even be disastrous for NASCAR. 

The Ill-Fated 2008 Brickyard 400 

The worst example of a race occurring with less than ideal track conditions occurred in 2008 at the Brickyard 400. The Car of Tomorrow (CoT), combined with the tire compounds Goodyear created, did not work well with the track surface, creating poor racing conditions. 

NASCAR had to throw a competition caution every 11 laps (if an on-track incident did not occur during that time frame) to ensure drivers could change tires before they wore down to dangerous levels. Overall, the race averaged just nine green flag laps between cautions. Even at nine laps, tires wore down to their nylon base and threatened to explode. 

Every tire Goodyear brought to the race was used, meaning NASCAR came eerily close to shortening the event because of the dwindling supply of tires. The Brickyard 400, once known as a Crown Jewel race, collapsed in popularity following the event, and NASCAR removed it after the 2020 season, and they now race on the speedway’s road course configuration instead. 

KEY POINTS

• Cautions in NASCAR are signified by the yellow flag

• They are used in various instances, usually if there is a crash or debris on the track

• They can also be used as competition cautions between race stages

How Often Are Cautions Used In NASCAR? 

Cautions are used fairly often in NASCAR, with the average per race usually being around 5. However, there may also be cautions between stages that raise this number, and there may also be non-natural competition cautions too, which can take the number up to 10 or more during a race.

There is never a predetermined number of cautions during a NASCAR event unless NASCAR officials deem racing conditions to be unsafe after a specific number of laps, such as what occurred at the 2008 Brickyard 400

Cautions, except for the two competition cautions following Stage 1, Stage 2, and in rare cases, Stage 3, are often spontaneous, occurring the moment a NASCAR official spots a dangerous track condition. Therefore, the exact number of cautions varies from event to event. 

Average Number Of Cautions Per NASCAR Race

Year Average Cautions Per Race
20125.86
20137.86
20148.08
20157.83
20167.11
20176.11
20184.61
20194.97
20205.25
20214.70

NASCAR Race With The Most Cautions

The NASCAR Cup race with the most cautions was the 2005 Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, with 22 cautions over 400 laps. Just over 25% of the race was run under caution, and this was as a result of several major crashes. The 1992 Xfinity Mountain Dew 500 had even more, with 26 cautions.

The 2005 Coca-Cola 600 set a record in the NASCAR Cup Series with 22 cautions. The 600, which serves as the longest race of the NASCAR season and as one of the sport’s Crown Jewels, traditionally occurs on Memorial Day Weekend and is NASCAR’s version of an endurance race, starting in the afternoon and ending at night. 

The 2005 event saw its first caution just seven laps into it, when Martin Truex Jr smacked the wall. Ironically, we saw little of what was to come during the race’s first 100 laps, but shortly thereafter the first major wreck occurred on the backstretch, but it did not involve any major contenders. 

Plenty More To Come

Between Lap 115 and Lap 240, we saw 10 cautions, with one caution involving teammates Casey Mears and Sterling Marlin. On Lap 247, another set of teammates collided, this time it was Dale Earnhardt Jr and Michael Waltrip. Minor cautions followed, but chaos erupted again when Kasey Kahne blew a tire while many cars jetted down pit road for green flag stops. 

During this time, the wave around rule did not exist in NASCAR, forcing the race’s top contenders to restart from the middle of the field. On Lap 380, seven cars and many contenders like Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon sustained heavy damage. This was the significant caution that set a new record, but that record extended when Joe Nemechek spun out. 

Bobby Labonte and Jimmie Johnson battled it out for the win, with Johnson taking the checkered flag. Over the 22 cautions, we also saw 103 caution laps, and 21 different drivers led laps

Most Cautions In NASCAR History

The 1992 Mountain Dew 500 at the Hickory Motor Speedway has the 2005 Coca Cola 600 beaten as the race with the most cautions of any NASCAR-sanctioned event. The race took place in the Xfinity Series, then known as the Busch Grand National Series. 

The 1992 Mountain Dew 500 featured 300 laps, and nearly half the race was run under caution as the yellow flag waved 26 times. The race saw only eight lead changes, since 132 laps, or 44% of the race, took place under yellow. Tommy Houston ended up winning the event. 

NASCAR Race With The Fewest Cautions

Since NASCAR introduced stage racing in 2017, every race is guaranteed to have at least two caution flags. Before the stage racing era, it was possible for races to run caution-free, and it has occurred. The most recent time it happened was the 2002 EA Sports 500 at Talladega, where they ran all 188 laps without a caution. 

This was significant, considering Talladega is known for its close racing that often brings out The Big One, the fancy name for pile ups that could involve up to two-dozen cars. Ironically, this event came just 18 months after Talladega saw yet another caution-free race in April 2001. 

It’s A Rarity

Overall, caution-free events are rare. NASCAR ran 584 races between the 2002 EA Sports 500 and the 2019 Spring Las Vegas Race, which was the first race that saw no cautions during green flag laps besides its two competition cautions

In modern NASCAR, there is only a 0.17% chance of a race having no cautions other than competition cautions 

2019 had not one but two races where the caution flag did not wave during green flag laps, with the second one occurring at the Sonoma Race. Since it was a road course event, on-track incidents occurred but they were not severe enough to warrant a caution. 

KEY POINTS

• NASCAR races can feature as few as 2 cautions or as many as 22

• The average caution rate per race is about 5

• It’s rare for modern NASCAR races to have no cautions (other than competition cautions)

How Fast Are NASCAR Cars Under Caution?

Under caution, NASCAR cars travel at the following speeds at different tracks:

  • 35 mph (56 kph): Bristol, Martinsville
  • 45 mph (72 kph): Charlotte Roval, Dover, Road America, Richmond, Sonoma, Watkins Glen
  • 50 mph (80 kph): World Wide Technology, Darlington, New Hampshire
  • 55 mph (89 kph): Atlanta, Charlotte, Homestead-Miami, Kansas, Las Vegas, Texas
  • 65 mph (205 kph): Auto Club, Michigan 
  • 70 mph (114 kph): Talladega, Pocono, Daytona

NASCAR cars do not drive at one universal speed under caution. With tracks coming in different shapes and sizes, you will see them driving at slower speeds at short tracks like Martinsville, and they’re significantly faster at Daytona. One common denominator exists, however, and it is that the cars drive well off the normal pace of what they otherwise run during green flag laps. 

The Takeaways

As you can see, the shortest tracks on the NASCAR circuit have the slowest speed limits while the 2.5 mile (4 km) superspeedways of Pocono, Daytona, and Talladega share the fastest caution speeds. The 2 mile (3 km) tracks of Auto Club and Michigan are just slightly slower. 

The smaller intermediate tracks of World Wide Technology, Darlington, and New Hampshire, all longer than 1 mile (1.5 km) but shorter than 1.5 miles (2.5 km), have cautions slightly slower than their 1.5 mile (2.5 km) counterparts

Road Courses 

The road courses each have a similar speed limit when under caution. However, it is also important to note that road courses throw out the caution flag differently than their oval counterparts, and cautions are not always thrown in the event of a spin or a spill.

Why Do Caution Laps Count In NASCAR?

NASCAR caution laps count because it allows NASCAR to have more control over how long the race can last. If NASCAR didn’t count caution laps, some races could last for hours past their scheduled end time, which is often already between 3 and 5 hours after the first green flag drops. 

Not all NASCAR tracks have lights, and not counting laps could force NASCAR to postpone the race or end it early, depending on whether they reach the halfway point in the event. If NASCAR did not reach the halfway mark, it would force teams to stay and complete the race the following day. By counting caution laps, teams can end their respective races at a reasonable hour. 

End Of Race Strategy Would Be Affected

Caution laps also help preserve fuel and racing strategy toward the end of the event. If caution laps did not count, a driver who could be good to finish the race on the fuel they have in their tank may be forced to drastically change their strategy. 

We rarely see this occur thanks to the green-white-checkered finish, which is NASCAR’s version of overtime. During such finishes, NASCAR will extend the race for two laps, running one green flag lap, and one white flag lap. Multiple cautions can occur during this time, and NASCAR can run several green-white-checkered finishes. 

At Atlanta in 2010, we saw 16 extra laps because of the green-white-checkered finish rule, and in that same season, they ran 12 additional laps at Talladega. At 2.7 miles (4 km), Talladega is the largest track on the circuit, meaning drivers ran another 32 miles (51 km) on top of the already 500 mile race, which forced some changes in strategy to ensure they had enough fuel to cross the line. 

Can A NASCAR Race End Under Caution? 

Before the 2004 season, NASCAR races could regularly end under caution. Since this did not allow fans to see exciting finishes toward the end of the race, NASCAR introduced the green-white-checkered rule in July of 2004. Initially, the field had just one chance to finish the race under green, but this has since expanded to an unlimited number of attempts. 

NASCAR races rarely end under caution thanks to the green-white-checkered finish. NASCAR officials will wave the caution flag and checkered flag simultaneously if the leader crosses the start-finish line to bring out the white flag. Once the leader crosses that line, if a caution comes out, the field is frozen, and NASCAR deems the lead driver the winner. 

Why Do NASCAR Cars Swerve During Caution?

When you watch a caution in NASCAR, you may notice that the cars swerve. They do this for two primary reasons. When drivers stop on pit road, they need a change of tires, so after they receive fresh tires, they will warm up those tires by swerving. This will allow for better grip and higher speeds, setting the driver up to attain the best track position possible during green flag laps. 

NASCAR cars will also swerve to get rid of marbles that accumulate on the track and find their way onto the tires. These chunks of rubber are slippery, and they can cause handling problems if drivers do not shed them. If there is a large concentration of marbles on the track and drivers cannot get rid of them, the accumulation of these marbles can cause wrecks or spins, warranting a caution. 

Final Thoughts

NASCAR cautions occur when track conditions are deemed too hazardous to continue racing under green flag conditions. These conditions often involve a wreck, but they can result from debris or liquid on the track. Most NASCAR races also feature cautions in between stages.