As the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs begin, USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Hembree looks at the biggest story lines heading into the Tales of the Turtles 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.


JOLIET, Ill. — The first race in the NASCAR playoffs – Sunday’s Tales of the Turtles 400 at Chicagoland Speedway — is not the time to throw caution to the wind.

Listen to some of the 16 drivers involved in the hunt for stock car racing’s ultimate championship, and a top concern is that NASCAR gets the “caution thing” right.

“I was leading the race with nine laps to go at Homestead (in 2014), nine laps from a championship,” Denny Hamlin said. “Somebody wiggled in the corner, a caution came out, we lost the championship. Yeah, I’m all for consistency. We need to find where that consistency is.”

Deciding which incidents warrant the display of the caution flag – often a split-second decision made in the NASCAR tower – has been a matter of controversy virtually since NASCAR’s first race in 1948. Ill-timed cautions have changed the complexion of dozens of races over the years, the most recent example being last week’s season finale at Richmond Raceway.

When Derrike Cope, riding 16 laps behind the leaders, whacked the wall with three laps remaining in the race, NASCAR called for the caution, bunching the field and wiping out Martin Truex Jr.’s big lead. After a round of pit stops, Kyle Larson took the lead and won the race in a green-white-checkered finish.

Truex was not happy.

“There was no legitimate reason for a caution,” Truex said. His point is that Cope’s minor meeting with the wall wasn’t significant enough to cause a yellow flag.

Truex also suggested changing NASCAR’s minimum speed requirement so that slower cars many laps down won’t be on the track impeding drivers racing for wins and, more importantly in the season’s final months, championships.

“You’d have to be way, way off the pace to go 16 or 20 laps down under green at a short track, 400-lap race (like Richmond),” Truex said. “I mean, losing a couple laps is one thing, but 15-plus. Probably don’t need to be out there.

“We don’t want to go to Homestead (for the season finale) and have a car that’s 25…