May 3, 2012
By Nicholas Schwartz
In 2003, NASCAR made a very progressive move to try and increase the level of safety for drivers on the track by banning the practice of racing back to the yellow flag at the finish line.
The field is frozen when the yellow comes out, and along with that rule change in 2003, NASCAR instituted the beneficiary rule, commonly called the “Lucky Dog” or the “free pass”, where the first driver listed one lap down, two laps down and so on is allowed to pass the leader, thus gaining back a lap, and restarting at the end of the longest line.
It’s been a well-received rule change that shakes up the race and keeps drivers who experience trouble early in a race gunning for a good finish. With the current state of Sprint Cup Series racing today, which in 2012 has seen a propensity of long green-flag runs and not many cautions, it may be time to make a small change to the Lucky Dog rule to take the advantage away from cars that are lapped during a long run.
At Richmond International Raceway, despite the myriad predictions of drivers and media experts, fans mostly saw a bunch of long runs interrupted only by a NASCAR competition caution, or for debris. At a circuit promoted as an action filled, old school short track—every commercial for Richmond I saw this weekend featured three or four memorable crashes—we saw more of what has come to characterize 2012: good, clean racing.
I have no problem with that and don’t sponsor the idea that NASCAR needs to have more cautions to be entertaining, but the lack of yellow flags does have unintended consequences, most notably with regards to who earns the Lucky Dog pass.
The struggles of Jeff Gordon, who is having a nightmare year in 2012 and limped to a 23rd-place finish, one lap down, on a night when he certainly had a car worthy of something better than 23rd. Gordon was collected in an incident following the restart after the lap 50 competition caution, and was forced to pit under green flag conditions get his car haphazardly repaired. He came out of the pits two laps down, and would therefore need to take advantage of the Lucky Dog pass to make his way back up the leaderboard.
Gordon’s problem, however, is that during a long green-flag run on a short or intermediate-length track when the leader will be systematically passing lap cars, it’s nearly impossible for anyone other than the last driver the leader passed to win the Lucky Dog.
After another caution and subsequent adjustments, Gordon, still two laps down, began to move through the field, passing lap cars and keeping a steady gap between himself and then-leader Carl Edwards, meaning he was in no danger of himself going another lap down. Though Gordon for long stretches was the first car listed two laps down on the scoreboard, each time Edwards passed a car already listed one lap down, that car sometimes has an insurmountable advantage over Gordon, who could be half a track length away.
Now to be the top ranked car two laps down, Gordon will have to make up the entire distance of the track between himself and the leader, despite running lap times comparable to the leaders. The longer the green flag stays out, the harder it becomes for drivers who began a run a lap down but keep up with the pack to have a shot at a free pass.
Of course, there is a simple solution NASCAR could consider to quell this problem.
At the beginning of each green flag run -- meaning after the first Lucky Dog pass has been awarded -- each car that is one lap down should be locked into a pool, each car that is two laps down should be locked into its own pool, and so on.
The race will continue as normal, and upon the next caution, the driver leading its respective pool of cars will be awarded the free pass.
If a driver happens to go another lap down, they would be removed from all consideration for the Lucky Dog upon the next caution. Why should NASCAR reward cars for getting lapped by placing them in the best position to immediately earn that lap back?
If you would like to learn more about Nicholas, please check out his web site at Sports By Schwartz. Nicholas is a Managing editor and sportswriter for The Duke Chronicle at Duke University.
The thoughts and ideas expressed by this writer or any other writer on Insider Racing News, are not necessarily the views of the staff and/or management of IRN.