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Can A NASCAR Race End Under Caution? (Rules Explained)

NASCAR cautions occur when track conditions are unsafe for drivers to continue racing under the green flag. Cautions can occur at any time during a race, be it at the beginning, halfway through, or at the end, which may lead you to ask whether a NASCAR race can end under caution. 

A NASCAR race can end under caution, but there are rules in place to limit this happening. It is rare to see a NASCAR race end under caution. Races only end under caution if the leader crosses the start-finish line to begin the event’s final lap and an on-track incident occurs afterward. 

Below, we will outline what NASCAR cautions are, and discuss why and when they occur. We will also reveal the conditions necessary for a NASCAR race to end under caution or for the race to end under green flag conditions. We will also explain what the infamous “racing back to the caution” entailed. 

NASCAR Cautions Explained

NASCAR cautions can arise for a variety of reasons. While the main reason is usually an on-track incident – often a wreck, or a car that spins, loses a tire, or experiences engine trouble – the caution flag can wave because of inclement weather, or as a result of debris from cars or even the grandstands that may find its way onto the track. 

Competition Cautions

There are also cautions known as competition cautions, which are pre-planned times at which the flagman will wave the caution flag. This is often done following a race stage or if NASCAR determines all drivers must pit every so many laps because of excessive and dangerous levels of tire wear. 

When the caution flag waves, also known as the yellow flag, all drivers must immediately slow down to a predetermined speed limit, often between 40 mph (64 kph) and 70 mph (113 kph), usually for anywhere between three and six laps. If there is so much debris on the track or if inclement weather is too much for the cars to continue, NASCAR will halt the race with a red flag. 

Why Are Cautions Used?

NASCAR uses cautions in the name of keeping their drivers safe from suffering unnecessary damage to their cars because of on-track debris or unsafe conditions. It also keeps drivers that are involved in a wreck safe, as they need to exit their cars. Cautions are also used to keep safety crews safe while they clean up debris, spills, and other car parts on the track. 

The caution flag also waves when it rains too hard for the cars to safely continue racing. This is because NASCAR tires do not have grooves, making them prone to hydroplaning on wet surfaces. Often, however, it becomes too dangerous to even continue under yellow flag conditions when rain affects the race, prompting the red flag to wave. 

Competition Cautions In Stage Racing

In 2017, NASCAR adopted stage racing. Most races comprise three stages, while the 600-mile Charlotte race contains a fourth stage. Following the second stage, a race can be deemed official if weather affects the event in the third stage. Also, following the first and second stages, the caution flag waves. 

This is an example of a competition caution, and it allows drivers the opportunity to pit before the following stage without losing out as much as they would pitting under green flag conditions. And while drivers cannot lose track position while under caution as a result of overtaking, they can lose or gain track position under caution if they decide to pit or stay out on the track. 

Can NASCAR Finish Under Caution?

NASCAR can finish under caution, but this can only be done after the leader takes the white flag, which signifies the start of the final lap. If a caution comes out in the laps before this and lasts until the scheduled end of the race, additional green flag laps will be run when the caution ends.

But there are times that NASCAR officials can deem track conditions okay for the race to remain under green flag conditions if an on-track incident occurs after the leader crosses the start-finish line on the final lap, which is what occurred during the 2020 Daytona 500. 

Before Ryan Newman’s infamous crash in that event, the race remained under green flag conditions after Chase Elliott spun and crashed earlier in the final lap. This allowed the race to remain under a green flag, which brought about the unfortunate events at the end of the race. 

NASCAR Overtime Rules

This format also dramatically differs from races ending under caution in the past. Until 2004, if the caution flag waved during the waning laps of the race, the race would end under caution with the field driving past the start-finish line behind the pace car. As you may have guessed, this was not the most exciting way to end a race. 

In 2004, when NASCAR introduced its first overtime rules, the field had one attempt to finish the race under a green-white-checkered flag format (essentially 2 more laps of racing). This format lasted until 2009, when NASCAR started to allow three attempts to occur. If NASCAR could not finish the race following the third attempt, the race would end behind the pace car. 

NASCAR’s Overtime Line

In 2016, NASCAR introduced a controversial concept called the overtime line. This was an imaginary line on the backstretch of every track. If a race went beyond its scheduled distance as a result of a caution, and if an on-track incident occurred after the leader crossed the overtime line on the penultimate lap (the green lap of the green-white-checkered portion), the race would end under caution.

If a caution occurred before the leader crossed the line, NASCAR attempted another green-white-checkered finish. However, the overtime line drew vast controversy, prompting NASCAR to modify the rule in August 2017 at Watkins Glen. The overtime line moved to the start-finish line, and if the leader crossed it before a would-be caution occurred, the race would finish under caution. 

If they did not cross the start-finish line to mark the final lap, another overtime round would occur. Further, NASCAR also eliminated the three-attempt rule, allowing for an unlimited number of finishes under green if the leader did not cross the start-finish line to signify the race’s final lap. If an incident occurs when the leader is on the final lap, the race ends under caution.

KEY POINTS

• NASCAR cautions are used when the track is deemed unsafe for racing, usually if there’s a crash or if it rains

• Cautions can occur at any point in the race, and some, called competition cautions, are scheduled between stages

• A NASCAR race can end under caution, although it rarely happens

NASCAR Races With The Most Extra Laps 

Track (Year)Extra Laps
Atlanta (2010)16
Martinsville (2012)15
Charlotte (2022)13
Talladega (2010, 2020)12 
Bristol (2015)11

Do NASCAR Caution Laps Count?

NASCAR cautions laps do count. When the caution flag waves, the number of laps run under it always count, regardless of if they are competition cautions between stages or cautions for a crash. If the caution causes a green-white-checkered finish, the 2 laps added on to the total also count.

A good comparison you can make to NASCAR caution laps is the use of stoppage time in a sport like soccer. In a soccer match, incidents occur, but the clock continues to run, eventually reaching the halftime or full-time mark. However, when you watch a match, you will notice that something called stoppage or injury time will occur, which is meant to compensate for time lost when the play stops.

But in NASCAR, caution-laden races could take a lot of extra time to compensate for the yellow flag laps under green flag conditions. And this could actually be rather dangerous toward the drivers given the amount of water weight they will lose during the event through sweat and the G-forces they are already dealing with. 

Even the caution laps at the end of the race will count toward the overall distance. However, when NASCAR goes into overtime, they add on two laps following each restart. The 2020 Daytona 500, for example, went for 209 laps and 522 miles (836 km). 

What Was Racing Back To The Caution In NASCAR?

Since 2004, the field freezes the second NASCAR officials wave the caution flag. This means drivers cannot gain or lose any positions via overtaking, even if they were about to make a pass or get passed. However, this was not always the case. Before the 2004 NASCAR season, drivers would instead race back to the start-finish line. 

The old rules stated that if the caution flag waved after the leader crossed the start-finish line, the cars raced one another as though they were still driving under green flag conditions until they reached the start-finish line again, at which point the race would proceed under caution. 

In this case, if the driver in second passed the leader after the caution flag waved, but before they made it back to the start-finish line, they would be credited with the pass, and therefore, the lead. Likewise, if they lost 10 spots before returning to the line, then they would find themselves in twelfth place when the race proceeded under caution. 

Issues

As you may have guessed, racing back to the caution was not the safest of practices in NASCAR. This is because, especially on short tracks or tracks with less space between the apron and the wall, drivers were at risk of crashing into wrecked cars, which would occur on occasion

One notable incident occurred during the 1983 Daytona 500, but the final straw regarding the race back to the caution rule did not occur until 20 seasons later in 2003 at New Hampshire. During the event, Dale Jarrett wrecked, and his car stalled right at the start-finish line in the middle of the track

And while nobody crashed into Jarrett, both he and the broadcast acknowledged the dangers of the cars racing back to the line with Jarrett’s stalled car sitting there with him still inside it. Video from the incident showed several cars getting dangerously close to Jarrett, who at which point, had already taken his steering wheel off. 

Gentlemen’s Agreement

Oftentimes, drivers did not actually race each other back to the caution because of a gentlemen’s agreement. During the early and middle portions of the race, drivers, if they could help it, treated the race back to caution as though the field were frozen. Despite this, some passing would still occur. However, a lot of this was often done unintentionally. 

Controversy reared its head when Robby Gordon won the 2003 Dodge/Save Mart 350. He made an intentional pass in the race’s latter half that gave him the lead during a race back to the line. Criticism from other NASCAR drivers and even its fan base followed, with Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick emerging as Robby Gordon’s most outspoken critics regarding the finish. 

The outlawing of racing back to the caution was in large part responsible for the introduction of the still controversial Lucky Dog Rule.

KEY POINTS

• NASCAR caution laps do count, regardless of why or when they are called

• NASCAR adds 2 laps on to the end of the race if there is a late caution

• Drivers used to be able to race back to the caution until it was deemed too dangerous

Final Thoughts

A NASCAR race can end under caution, but it is very rare. Since 2004, NASCAR has used a variety of overtime rules that allow drivers to have a chance to end the race under green flag conditions, with green-white-checkered finishes now the preferred method if there’s a late caution.