Did Toyota’s gripes make NASCAR change the way it called debris cautions in the 2010s? Yes, according to Toyota Racing Development executive David Wilson.
Wilson told the Athletic that Toyota went to NASCAR after the 2016 season finale at Homestead to complain about a late debris caution during the race — a caution that turned out to be a turning point in recent NASCAR history.
Joe Gibbs Racing’s Carl Edwards had a comfortable lead on his title competitors with 15 laps to go when a piece of a brake rotor came off of Dylan Lupton’s car. While the caution is officially classified for a crash, Lupton’s car didn’t hit the wall and easily made it to pit road and the only need for the caution was for some minor debris on the backstretch.
Edwards and Joey Logano collided on the ensuing restart, and Edwards’ chances for his first and only Cup Series title disappeared. Jimmie Johnson went on to win the race and his seventh championship while Edwards abruptly retired in the offseason and hasn’t returned to NASCAR since.
That race was also the final race before NASCAR implemented stage racing and pre-planned cautions between stages in 2017. Wilson believes that NASCAR’s reluctance to throw fewer seemingly arbitrary debris cautions in the stage racing years is because of Toyota’s lobbying after Edwards and Logano crashed.
From the Athletic's Q&A with Wilson:
What is the big regret that you look back on and wish would’ve turned out differently?
The one that haunts me to this day, and there is nothing even close, is Homestead 2016 and Carl Edwards’ championship loss. That was his championship, he was going to win the championship, but there was a bulls**t caution that was thrown at the end of that race because the race more or less had been decided.
Here’s my silver lining: We raised holy hell with the sanctioning body over that incident. And I believe, if you were to plot on a graph the change in treatment of the way the sport was regulated during the course of the race, you could trace it to that singular event.
What did you tell NASCAR?
We just addressed the contrived nature of the way debris cautions were called. They’ve always made light of in the past of, “Hey, this race has gotten boring so what are we going to do?” And to NASCAR’s credit, they agreed and accepted that for the credibility of their sport, they needed to overhaul that process.
Now there is due diligence that is taken in real time up in the (scoring) booth before a caution flag is flown. Again, you’re still going to have some questionable ones — I think there’s still a hair-trigger effect — but I am satisfied that it’s not purely contrived or manipulative like it has been in the past.
Wilson's comments are certainly eye-opening and serve as a confirmation bias of sorts for anyone who thought that NASCAR's criteria for what was and wasn't a debris caution changed with race control's desire to have a restart and the field closer together. The two pre-planned cautions in each race have, in the minds of some, cut back on NASCAR's desire to throw a debris caution in, uh, lesser circumstances.
But figuring out what is and isn't a caution is still a tricky endeavor at times. Sometimes drivers will slide or half-spin without a caution flag. Other times, a driver will get sideways and the caution light will come on before he or she has a chance to save the car.
If NASCAR hadn't thrown that caution for Lupton — and given the benefit of hindsight it probably shouldn't have — Edwards is likely the 2016 champion and potentially still racing in the Cup Series. Johnson, meanwhile, may not be tied with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt as the most successful driver in Cup Series history.
Instead, Edwards and Mark Martin occupy the list of best drivers without a Cup Series title and Johnson is in the same stratosphere as the King and the Intimidator.