It turns out that human error caused the phantom caution at Bristol Motor Speedway. As the laps wound down in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series Food City 500 late Sunday, Carl Edwards had a comfortable lead over second place Ricky Stenhouse Jr.. With only a few laps to go however, the caution lights came on slowing the field and setting up what many thought would be an exciting green-white-checkered flag finish for the win to end a race that had been twice delayed for rain for over five hours.
It wasn’t to be however.
Drivers, crewmembers fans, TV analysts, and even NASCAR officials scanned the track looking for trouble. Seeing nothing obvious people began to wonder just what had happened. Social media began to light up as questions began about a “phantom caution.” As it turned out, the caution was imitated by human error.
“It appears that in the flag stand one of the flag people had leaned on the switch that is the manual override for the caution lights, and so that happened,” Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s vice president competition said shortly after the race. “We've got times here, but anyway, that happened, and at that time when the flag stand realized that the caution lights were illuminated, the flag man threw the flag, and then after that happened we froze the field from the tower.”
Normally NASCAR officials in race control in the tower are the ones to push the button to start a caution period.
“It appears that in, not all, but most of the flag stands have a manual override for the caution lights,” Pemberton said. “Due to the weather and due to other things, there's an area that it couldn't have been -- it wasn't secured properly, and the flag person leaned against the switch and turned the caution lights on.”
Pemberton added that race control tried to react by immediately shutting the lights off, however they couldn’t.
“We realized that the override switch was on and they were hung on caution,” Pemberton said. “It was a stupid error.”
As it turned out the error might have been fortuitous. A lap after the field slowed the rains that had plagued the area the entire day returned with a vengeance as a down pour hit the track. NASCAR went ahead and initiated a full caution and the field finished under caution with Edwards declared the winner.
“For Robin and NASCAR to come up here and explain exactly what happened immediately after the race and just put it out there that, hey, it was just a mistake and inadvertent,” Edwards said later. “I think that says a lot about the state of the leadership of our sport.”
Edwards also said that a caution mistake by NASCAR late in a race cost him a win earlier in his career.
“I was leading it the last time that happened at Charlotte in a truck race,” Edwards said. “We got passed and Mike Helton, they put out a press release that said, ‘Hey, we messed up. We apologize to Carl and his crew.’ And I think NASCAR, that was 12-13 years ago, and they still stand by their mistakes and for them to come up here and say, ‘Hey, we messed up,’ that means a lot. As a sport, they make a lot of tough calls. We all do a lot of things where there is a lot of room for mistakes, so the outcome worked out for me but even if it hadn’t I’m glad to be part of something where they say, ‘Hey, we just screwed up.’”
Pemberton said that NASCAR will work to prevent an incident like what happened Sunday night in the future.
“We learn a lot of lessons,” Pemberton said. “When we learn a lesson like this we'll go in and further investigate some things. As you know, all the electronics that we've had and have installed in the trailers for freeze the field and all these other things, there's still -- you still have to integrate into the track facilities, so there's probably some things that we needed to do to better secure that area where the manual override is on the lights.”