More drivers are ignoring the etiquette of how to behave when a race is under caution.
By BRANT JAMES
Published August 9, 2003
Speculation gathered with drivers, owners and crew chiefs inside the stuffy garage at Daytona International Speedway. This would be the stage, it seemed, for a spirited discussion about the yellow-line rule, about how Dale Earnhardt Jr. possibly had gotten away with breaking it three months earlier at Talladega and what would happen if someone did the same in the Pepsi 400.
Then NASCAR president Mike Helton tersely changed the subject. Adhere to the gentleman's agreement that for the past two decades has dictated informally how drivers behave during cautions. Police it yourself or NASCAR would.
Racing etiquette has been tested this season, but it became a point of contention June 22 when Robby Gordon passed teammate Kevin Harvick on a caution and eventually won on the road course at Sonoma.
With the Winston Cup series returning to a road course Sunday at Watkins Glen, the potential for another flap is arguably greater than at any time since the Infineon Raceway incident. With passing so difficult on the winding course, drivers likely will be inclined to take advantage of any opportunity. And as with Gordon at Sonoma, they're not likely to be apologetic.
"I do what I have to do to win the race," Gordon said.
The problem, defending champion Tony Stewart said, is different drivers play by different rules.
"It's tough when you have half of the field racing under that agreement and the other half is sort of out there on their own," he said.
Jeff Gordon, who was among the most critical of Robby Gordon's actions at Sonoma, said the color of the flag governs his actions.
"I think you do what you feel like doing," Jeff Gordon said, "(but) when the caution comes out, I'm not racing unless the guy behind me races. I'm not racing unless it's coming to the white flag or for the win.
"If I've got a fender inside a guy and we're side by side and the caution comes out, I feel like we were racing before the caution came out, so you keep racing. If a guy tries to pass me under caution, I'm going to try to keep him from passing me."
Even if he and his team have a deal with another driver.
Almost as contentious as passing under yellow has been the widely accepted practice of the leader allowing drivers a lap down - especially teammates - to pass and regain a spot on the lead lap. Because it is accepted, it is often expected, and drivers fume when not afforded the courtesy.
Rookie Greg Biffle had a deal with Jeff Gordon to get a lap back July 20 at New Hampshire. When the four-time champion reneged, Biffle later bumped Gordon in disgust. NASCAR officials summoned Biffle afterward but did not penalize him when told of the broken promise.
Such conflicts can be eliminated, many say, by remembering the object of the sport.
"If you are going to give people their laps back, why race?" said Kyle Petty, who has led two laps this season. "That's the whole point of what we do - putting as much distance between you and the car behind you as possible.
"If you have been able to put, say, more than 21/2 miles between you and the car behind you, why would you give it all back because a caution came out? That's not racing, that's cricket."
Stewart blamed inexperienced drivers for complicating issues.
"I think there are a lot of new drivers in the series who, in a way, don't realize they are not in the Busch series or Truck series," he said. "Unfortunately, there is a real disregard for etiquette, and that has taken away from what we do."
Winston Cup director John Darby said he thinks drivers can regulate themselves, but Stewart said he thinks NASCAR eventually will intercede. Ken Schrader hopes it does.
"Every other rule we have is in black and white in the rule book, so why not this one?" Schrader said. "I just think we need to take this to that point. These teams, these drivers can adjust to just about anything. A lot of times it's just knowing what the rule is. Lay it out and we'll abide by it."