DOVER, Del. - Racing to the start/finish line when a caution flag flies in NASCAR Winston Cup racing is a tradition as old as the sport. Until now, not even a driver's death could put a stop to it.
But today, in the MBNA America 400 at Dover International Speedway, that tradition will become history.
When a yellow caution flag appears on this one-mile speedway, drivers will be compelled to reduce their speed and line up single file behind the leader. No driver is allowed to improve his position during the caution, and anyone who tries to will be penalized.
"From the safety and competition standpoint, the new rules are good," said car owner Richard Childress, who is also a former Top 10 driver. "But we've raced all these years without a big incident, and I think it will take away from some of the racing."
The "big incident" actually did happen once at Daytona International Speedway in the late 1960s. Don McTavish crashed coming out of the fourth turn during the Permatex 300, a sportsman race run during the week leading up to the Daytona 500. The front end of his car was torn away and McTavish, sitting totally exposed in his car's driver's seat, came to rest in the middle of the track.
The yellow flag came out, but cars were racing back to the flag through the third and fourth turns. When driver Sam Summers finally saw McTavish, there was no place to go. He plowed into the unprotected driver, killing him, as others crushed their brakes trying to avoid the accident.
Bobby Allison and others began campaigning for a stop to racing back to the flag. But at the time, NASCAR didn't hear the plea. The accident was considered just part of the price of racing.
But last weekend in New Hampshire, when Dale Jarrett's car crashed and he was stranded in an equally vulnerable position, NASCAR had seen enough.
"We'd been discussing options to racing back to the caution flag for probably a year, if not more," said NASCAR series director John Darby. "But the Dale Jarrett incident made up our minds to react."
Before today, there had only been a gentlemen's agreement that meant drivers would, on their own volition, not race back to the start/finish line under caution.
"For whatever reason," Darby said, "it's not working anymore."
With 40 drivers, each under pressure to achieve the best finish possible for car owner and sponsors, there is not much give left in the sport.
"It was obvious that something was going to have to be put in place as a rule because agendas have changed for people," Jarrett said. "It seems that, whether it's right or wrong, and I'm not here to decide who is right and who is wrong, but because of the ways that mostly the newer generation has come in and taken the rules for what they are, there can't be any gray area.
"You have to define it out because they're going to take it to that limit."
Drivers asked questions for 45 minutes after NASCAR officials explained the new operating procedures yesterday and came away with more questions unanswered.
"I'm confused," said four-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon. "On the track, slowing for the caution, there are a lot of questions."
For instance: If a driver slows and the car he's racing against is slower to slow and winds up ahead, will NASCAR give the driver who was originally in front that position?
And Gordon doesn't like NASCAR's plan to give the highest-running car not on the lead lap a lap back at every caution up to the final 10 laps.
"That's not racing," he said. "You should have to earn everything you get on the track."
Second-year driver Ryan Newman thought he understood the new pit road rules that allow passing only on the right, only to learn he didn't.
With new rules also come new problems.
The race leader probably will have a harder time putting cars a lap down because every car will have extra incentive to stay on the lead lap.
There will be no more deals, Childress said.
"It used to be," he said, "you could work with other drivers. 'Let me pass and when the yellow comes out, I'll give you your lap back.' That won't happen anymore, and I think that means the move-over flag [yellow and blue] won't mean as much. Drivers will ignore it as long as they can."
Once the caution flag is displayed, all drivers must reduce their speed to a cautious pace immediately and line up single file behind the leaders.
Any drivers who advance their position during the caution period will be penalized, with the minimum penalty being sent to the end of the longest line of cars for the restart.
Drivers who overtake another driver while reducing speed will be given the opportunity to return to their proper position immediately. If not, NASCAR will intervene.
Drivers who do not maintain a reasonable speed during the caution will lose their track position.
During each caution period, the first car that is not on the lead lap will be given a lap back.
All cars will be required to enter pit road in single file while maintaining pit-road speed, and passing on pit road will be permitted only to the right side. Passing to the left will result in a penalty.