NASCAR Halts Racing Under Caution Flag

Friday, September 19th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DOVER, Del. (AP) _ Dale Jarrett sat helplessly in the racing groove in his wrecked Ford as the other cars roared by left and right at full speed.

Jeff Gordon tried to stop too fast and spun his car into three crewmen on pit road.

NASCAR had seen enough, and acted Thursday to end the mayhem that punctuated the Winston Cup race last Sunday at New Hampshire International Speedway. This Sunday, at Dover International Speedway, there will be no racing back to the flag under caution.

``We needed to find a better way,'' NASCAR president Mike Helton said. ``The new procedures we are putting in place are the first step in the process.''

The new rule forbids passing once the caution flag is displayed, ending the tradition of drivers racing back to the flag stand to protect their positions and keep other cars a lap down. NSACAR won't say until Saturday how it will deal with spins on pit road such as the one by Gordon that nearly caused serious injuries to teammate Jimmie Johnson's crewmen.

The sanctioning body made the change a day after announcing that roof escape hatches will be permitted on the cars next week at Talladega Superspeedway. It won't have to search hard for support among the drivers.

``I've said all along that we shouldn't be racing back to the yellow, so I'm very happy with the decision,'' Ricky Craven said. ``I think every driver will breathe a little easier now when the yellow flag comes out.

``In the past, you've had to race back to the yellow even when you didn't really want to just to maintain your position, because you knew most of the guys behind you weren't slowing down. I'm glad that will finally be one less thing we'll have to worry about.''

He called it another major move in the ongoing program to make the sport safer. There have been sweeping changes since the deaths of four NASCAR drivers _ including seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt _ in a nine-month span of 2000 and 2001.

Head and neck restraint devices, so-called soft wall technology, the installation of fire extinguishers near the fuel cells and the hatches are among the new safety devices.

Now, NASCAR is putting an end to a problem that became more noticeable this year when drivers began ignoring their own ``gentlemen's agreement'' not to race back to the flag under caution. Robby Gordon won three months ago on the road course in Sonoma, Calif., passing teammate Kevin Harvick and beating him back to the start-finish line after the yellow flag waved.

Fair competition was of less concern to Johnny Benson than the safety aspect of the new rule.

``It was just getting to the point where racing back to the yellow was just too dangerous,'' he said. ``If a guy is sitting there wrecked on the track, we need to get ambulances and safety workers moving to see if he is OK.

``We don't need to delay them so we can see if a lapped car or two can get a lap back. What happened with Dale Jarrett at New Hampshire was scary, and I think it was the final straw with NASCAR.''

There was no action on the track Thursday, and qualifying and practice were canceled Friday at Dover, which wound up only on the fringe of passing Hurricane Isabel. But the sanctioning body was kept busy with the latest rule change and the indefinite suspension of Busch series driver Shane Hmiel for substance abuse.

``NASCAR has a zero tolerance for any type of behavior in violation of our substance abuse policy,'' Helton said.

He did not specify the substance involved, but said Hmiel could seek reinstatement after agreeing to attend counseling and undergo periodic random testing. Hmiel had already been disciplined this year.

He and Jason Keller were fined $5,000 each and placed on probation until Dec. 31 for fighting after the Busch series event two weeks ago in Richmond, Va.