One of the theories behind stage racing is that drivers would race harder to get stage points. That should theoretically be reflected by the number of cautions. Cautions appear to be up in 2017. Are they? And can we attribute the change to stage racing?
Let’s go to the data.
Are Cautions Up?
I’d argue no. A number of writers noted that the absolute number of cautions is up by about 10% over 2016. This is true. There were 296 total cautions in 2017 and 269 in 2016; however, let’s look over a longer range of time. This is data from 2001 to the present day.
On average, a 10% change in cautions from year to year is normal. (If you’re talking 300 cautions, a 10% change is 30 cautions; if you have one additional caution at every race, you’ve made your 10% plus a little more right there.)
The average number of cautions over the last sixteen years is 298. The largest number of cautions was 373 (in 2005), which was a 20% increase from 2004. The Coca Cola 600 had 22 cautions (15 more than in 2004); There were 10 cautions just between laps 115 and 240. Add to that a gain of 7 cautions in the Daytona 500 and 7 cautions in the Fall Bristol race and you’ve got the extra 10% right there. I looked for awhile to try to see if I could find the factors responsible for the big increase, like a lot of rookies (nope), but I failed.
The lowest number of cautions was 216 in 2012. Remember all the hew and cry about how cautions were falling in 2012 and everyone thought the races were boring because they had so few cautions?
In terms of absolute numbers, 2016 was anomalous because the number of cautions in 2016 was down (by about 10%) relative to 2013, 2014 and 2015. So if you look at it in terms of absolute numbers, 2016 is the oddball year and 2017 is right in line with the three years before that.
So you can’t really claim that stage racing had a huge impact on caution numbers.
Or Can You…?
You cannot compare apples to oranges. It is even worse to compare apples to giraffes. The lengths of races and even which tracks are included often change year to year. Laps run are not always the same as the laps scheduled between rain-outs and green-white-checkers finishes.
You’ll notice, for example, that in 2012, we ran 514 miles — a full Daytona 500 — less than we did in 2011. That was the year both Pocono races were shortened by a hundred miles, plus Fontana was rain shortened by 142 miles, plus the second Pocono race was shortened an additional 155 miles because of rain.
Thanks to the good folks at racing-reference.info, we can look at cautions a slightly different way: by calculating the percentage of laps run under caution, which adjusts for the fact that we ran different distances in different years. This is the NASCAR equivalent to inflation-adjusted dollars.
But Even That Doesn’t Fix the Problem
One of the challenges for data geeks like me is that NASCAR keeps changing the rules. I’m not complaining, just noting that this makes the task of understanding the numbers they collect slightly more difficult. I’m going to propose that, going forward, we count cautions differently.
My proposal is based on the principle that all cautions are not equal. I divide them into two types:
- Cautions NASCAR has control over, like competition cautions and stage breaks.
- Cautions NASCAR doesn’t have control over: accidents, pieces and fluids leaking from cars, etc.
I will argue that if we want to understand how cautions affect racing, you can’t include the artificial construct of the NASCAR-determined cautions. Specifically, if we want to understand the impact of stage racing, we need to take into account how stage racing changes the meaning of the caution numbers.
So I went back and tabulated the cause of every caution for the last few years. I’ll start by showing you the data from 2017. The figures next to each type of caution are the absolute numbers of that type of caution.
There were 69 stage cautions and 7 competition cautions for a total of 78 NASCAR-determined cautions our of the total 296 cautions. That’s more than a quarter (26.4%) of all cautions for the seasons.
We have no stage-end cautions and an average of 15 competition cautions for the three prior years. Cautions that NASCAR has control over were only about 5% of the total cautions before stage racing.
I would argue we shouldn’t include NASCAR-determined cautions in the total caution count. They are (almost all) about in advance and there are a lot of them. Look at the percentage of cautions the different types made up in 2016 and 2017
There were more stage-end cautions in 2017 than there were debris cautions in 2016 (and almost as many as debris cautions in 2015).
I claim that there were fewer cautions in 2017 in 2016. Counting only cautions out of NASCAR’s control, they are down from 255 in 2016 to 220 in 2017.
So What Impact Did Stage Racing Have?
The reason we care about cautions is that we’re trying to determine whether stage racing made a difference. So let’s look at what I argue are the actual cautions. I grouped infield fires, police pulling drunk people down from fences, uncontrolled tires, etc. as ‘Other’. The group ‘stalled’ includes both stalled and slow cars.
Accidents & Spins
The biggest contributor to cautions is (unsurprisingly) accidents. In absolute terms, we had almost the same number of accidents this year as last: 168 in 2017 and 163 in 2016. That’s only a 3% increase. The number of accidents has been trending upward.
The number of spins is fairly small, but they were the same in 2016 and 2017 at 20 spins each.
If you count spins + accidents as a measure of the intensity of racing (are drivers taking chances and/or driving aggressively?), the results are interesting in that there isn’t much change. The increase from 183 to 188 (2.7%) isn’t significant. This number has remained in the 180-190 range for the last four years. I’d like to argue that you could say that drivers are getting better and there are fewer single-car accidents (i.e. spins); however, it might also just be that drivers are getting better at taking other cars with them when they mess up.
I argue that tells us that stage racing didn’t cause more accidents. The probability of drivers being more aggressive to get stage points is offset by the need to not wreck — especially knowing that even a fairly soft wreck might end up with your car being retired.
Here’s the other interesting thing from this graph: Debris cautions are down by 62% from 2016 to 2017 — and that’s with the number of accidents (the most likely origin of debris) increasing by less than 3%. In 2016, there were only four races at which there were no debris cautions. In 2017, Jacques Debris missed 21 races.
I’ve put a full summary of the debris cautions in a very large graph at the bottom, but here I compare the frequency of debris cautions for 2014 and 2017. This is a histogram, which gives you the frequency of occurrence of an event. For example, there were 21 races with no cautions in 2017 (the large orange bar at left) compared to 5 races with no cautions in 2014.
Total debris cautions are down 75% from 2014; however, the drop from 2016-2017 was much larger than previous year-to-year drops. This doesn’t tell us anything about the drivers; however it does suggest that the damaged vehicle policy implemented in 2018 is having an impact.
Stage racing may contribute in that the time between stages gives NASCAR a breather that allows them to do some track grooming (like Zamboni breaks at ice hockey games) and do a once-over of the track to get anything questionable out of the way before racing resumes.
- We should stop counting stage-end cautions in the running caution count because it’s misleading. They will likely make up 20-25% of cautions as long as we stick with the current format.
- The argument that stage racing is responsible for increasing the number of cautions in 2017 is
- true only insofar as there were 69 stage-end cautions, which upped the total by 10%.
- false if you omit stage-end and competition cautions. That results in a 13% decrease in cautions.
- They are a rough measure of how hard and how many chances a driver takes during a race. Alternately, if you’re the one taken out, they are a measure of how boneheaded your competitors are.
- They are the largest contributor to the total number of cautions at 50% – 65%
- They vary by about 8% a year over 2014-2017 (average: 156; min 144; max 168)
- The data don’t support the argument that stage racing has made drivers race harder. Drivers have to balance aggressive racing with being around for the subsequent stages and the end of the race.
- Debris cautions are way down in 2017 relative to 2016 (43%).
- Debris cautions are down by 75% since 2014.
- The most likely cause for the significant decrease in debris cautions is the damaged vehicle policy, with the ability to scan for debris during stage-end cautions also potentially contributing
- The Future
- Martin Truex, Jr. has called on NASCAR to raise the minimum speed to keep slower cars from getting in the way.
Bonus Big Graph
This was large enough that I didn’t want to stick it in the main text, but here’s the debris cautions plotted on the same vertical scale. In 2014, there were 7 debris cautions at a single race. In 2017, the race with the most cautions had only 4.
Also published on Medium.