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The COMPLETE History of the NASCAR Caution Clock

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What’s Happening?

To help institute a more variable strategy in races, Kyle Busch suggested reinstituting a version of the Caution Clock that counts down by laps instead of time elapsed. The caution clock has been tried in NASCAR before, and this is how it went.

  • NASCAR instituted the Caution Clock in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in 2016. While the Caution Clock in that form only lasted one season, it still impacts the sport today.
  • Kyle Busch’s suggestion of a Caution Clock is slightly different from the previous one. However, it still follows a similar principle to the one used by NASCAR back then.
  • Fans despised the Caution Clock when it was introduced, but it didn’t necessarily disappear.

January 2016: The Introduction of the Caution Clock

Unlike many rule changes throughout NASCAR’s history, there was no inciting incident to bring this major change. This one came out of nowhere when NASCAR announced it in January 2016.

The rule was as follows: Every time the green flag waved to start or restart a race in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, a 20-minute timer started counting down. When the timer hit 0:00, NASCAR displayed a competition caution. When the race hit 20 laps to go on smaller tracks and 10 to go on bigger tracks, NASCAR turned off the caution clock.

NASCAR Executive Vice President and Chief Racing Officer Steve O’Donnell gave two reasons for the change: one, a planned caution would add to pit strategy during the race, and two, the competition caution would give teams opportunities to adjust their trucks throughout the race.

We think it’s going to add to the strategy during the race. If you look at the Camping World Truck Series, that is an area where some of our younger drivers, our newer teams really can use the competition caution to be able to adjust on the truck…We’ve seen that in the [Sprint] Cup Series when we’ve had a competition caution early in the race. It’s allowed teams to make some last-minute adjustments in the race.

Steve O’Donnell

However, a line in NASCAR’s original press release gives another reason fans immediately went to. The line read, “The rules change takes come cues from basketball, with its shot clocks and regularly scheduled TV timeouts.”

NASCAR is not like other sports, which have timeouts during which TV networks can fit their commercials in. Many felt that the Caution Clock was mainly instituted to allow TV networks to plan their commercial breaks.

Elton Sawyer, then the Truck Series Managing Director, claimed that “all stakeholders” were “very receptive.”

However, many fans were less receptive. They claimed that this ruined the natural flow of a race by throwing an arbitrary caution flag. Regardless of fan reception, NASCAR implemented the caution clock for the 2016 Camping World Truck Series season.

2016: The Caution Clock Era

The caution clock was first utilized at Atlanta, the season’s second race. Twice in the race, the caution clock ran out, once on lap 38, and again on lap 106, causing the leaders to lose their advantage. Kyle Petty was quick to criticize the clock after the race.

The first major issue with the caution clock came that spring at Kansas. The caution clock expired, and Jordan Anderson was pushed down pit road with a flat tire. As a result, NASCAR had to delay opening pit road, which caused multiple trucks to run out of fuel under the caution flag.

Aside from that, no other major issues arose with the Caution Clock, but, fan sentiment was still largely against it. David Land went to see the Craftsman Truck Series at Pocono in 2016, and he claimed he would “Boo” whenever the caution clock went off. Fortunately for him, the caution clock was never utilized in that race.

Even if fans were not high on the caution clock, NASCAR went one step further in 2017. They took scheduling cautions to an entirely new level.

2017-Present: Stage Racing Era

In 2017, NASCAR announced a new race format across all three series. Each race would be divided into three stages, with two competition cautions scheduled throughout the race to end the stages. This was also when playoff points were added to the playoff format, thus beginning both stage racing and the modern playoff era.

To this day, stage racing remains a controversial topic among fans. Some love it, but some hate it.

It’s not clear whether the caution clock inspired stage racing, but the timing of the two is certainly interesting. While the reasoning for the caution clock was mainly aimed at race strategy, then-NASCAR President Brian France focused on improving the racing.

We’re going to do what our fans have been asking us to do. That’s to make the racing compelling on an hour by hour basis.

Brian France via Racing News

This was accomplished through two things. One, the stage points forced drivers to race hard throughout the race for those valuable points. Second, the scheduled cautions meant the field would bunch up for two restarts throughout the race. That sounds similar to another rule NASCAR nixed in favor of this…

Stage racing has undergone some minor changes including changing the length of the stages and even doing away with stage cautions on road courses for most of 2023. However, the format has remained largely the same since.

In a way, the caution clock does exist today in the form of stage racing. It was one of the most controversial changes in recent NASCAR history and, yet, one of the most influential.

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