What Exactly Is Nascar’s Lucky Dog Rule?

If you’ve watched Nascar for any length of time then you have probably heard of the “Lucky Dog” rule. You will have noticed the term used at the same time as the yellow flag is waving or a caution or the pace car is out for caution laps. It can also be called the beneficiary rule, or the free pass rule, but what exactly is it, and how did it come to be called the “Lucky Dog?”

The Lucky Dog rule, also known as the beneficiary rule or free pass rule, stats that during a caution the first car a lap down is allowed to become unlapped. With the caveat that the car was not involved in the caution event, and the driver is not subject to penalties. It can occur multiple times during the race.

To learn why the lucky dog / Free Pass rule was implemented we need to look back a few years, as strange as it seems what happened before was both strange and dangerous, we discuss this below.

What is the History behind the Lucky Dog Rule

The origin of the rule stems from an incident (or more accurately, a near-incident) at the 2003 Siemens 300 at New Hampshire International Raceway, when Dale Jarrett’s no.88 UPS Ford crashed off the outside wall in turn 4 and came to a rest in the middle of the front straight, a few hundred meters short of the start/finish line.

In those days drivers “raced back to the caution.” In other words, yellow flag conditions only initiated when the race leader reached the start/finish line. In this particular case the long-standing rule created a situation that led to a near disaster as multiple cars came racing off the fourth turn with Jarret in their path.

All drivers involved managed to avoid Jarret’s car, but it was a close call. The incident made it apparent that the rule of racing back to take the yellow flag at the start line needed to be changed, with at least one commentator saying so outright.

You can check out the Incident on YouTube Below. Including the commentator giving his opinion on the rule and how it needed to be changed.

Why Race to the Yellow Started to be a Problem

But why did this rule fail after being in use for many years, if not decades? To answer this, we need to examine the old rule more closely.

What allowed racing back to the line to work for so many years was that there was an unwritten agreement among drivers to not pass once the yellow flag had been displayed, but rather to slow down, maintain their respective positions and allow nearby lapped cars to pass and rejoin the lead lap.

This was a sort of “gentleman’s agreement,” but by this time it was beginning to go by the wayside.

One has to remember that this was the time when Nascar was at its peak, with more money, fame and prestige on the line than the sport had ever enjoyed at any time in its history.

And this meant that with more and more team owners, drivers and sponsors comingOpens in a new tab. in from “outside” to get in on stock car racing’s booming popularity, the competition level was at a fever pitch.

At this point in the sport’s history, what many would call the very apex of its golden age, there was more pressure on drivers and teams than ever before and as a result drivers were willing to leave everything on the track. This can be evidenced by other instances of drivers abandoning the gentleman’s agreement regarding racing back to the yellow from that period.

It was these dynamics of a rising sport going through growing pains, that lead to the Jarret incident.

Nascar saw that racing back to the yellow was no longer a serviceable practice, and so subsequently implemented the new rule of drivers adhering to yellow conditions as soon as the caution flag is thrown, rather than at the start line.

As part of the new rule, to allow lapped cars a chance to make up a lost lap, a free pass stipulation was added in which the first car one lap down would be the recipient of a wave around to the tail of the lead lap.

This rule has continued to be practiced to this day.

What is the Beneficiary, Free Pass Rule?

This was a way to substitute the old practice of leaders slowing down for lapped cars when racing back to the line under the old rule. This rule has also been called the beneficiary rule, the “wave around,” the free pass rule, and the “pardon.” Without doubt the most popular name for this is the “Lucky Dog Rule.”

When does the Lucky Dog Rule not apply?

It does however, come with a few caveats:

  • a driver cannot benefit from the lucky dog pass if he/she were part of the cause of the yellow flag;
  • nor can a driver receive the lucky dog if the lap lost was due to a penalty,
  • or if certain pit road violations are committed.
Lucky Dog Nascar

Why is it Called the Lucky Dog Rule?

The Lucky Dog term was first coined by 1973 Cup champion and legendary broadcast analyst Benny Parsons, during TNT’s coverage of a 2003 race at the Dover International Speedway.

It was said in reference to a car driven by driver Jimmy Spencer, which was sponsored by Sirius Satellite Radio whose mascot was a dog (due to the fact that the name Sirius is also known as “dog star,” because it is part of Canis Major, the dog constellation).

When Spencer received a wave around at one point in the course of the race, Parsons quipped of the Spencer car’s Mascot “that is one lucky dog.”

From there the term caught on, with other broadcasters using it, and of course it was a hit with fans. Pretty soon a dog animation was made to go along with mention of the lucky dog rule, and it would eventually come to pass that the lucky dog rule would even get its own sponsorship by Aaron’s Rental.

The dog has gone on to become the company’s mascot, and to this day is featured as part of its branding. Plush toys of the mascot, decked out in a Nascar-style fire suit, can even be purchased.

Have any Drivers Won a Race After Getting the Lucky Dog

To our knowledge there have been three times drivers have managed to win a race after being awarded the lucky dog during a caution. These are in the table below.

Ryan NewmanDover2003
Ryan NewmanMichegan2004
Mark MartinDover2004
Jeff GordonMartinsville2005
Kyle BuschPhoenix 2005
Kurt BuschBristol2006
Kasey KahneMichigan2006
Joey LoganoNew Hampshire2009

These are the stats up we can find up until 2009. We continue to look for more updated results. We did find that kyle larson won with a lucky dog in the truck series in 2016 and there will be more so this wil be a work in progress!

The controversy with the rule, implemented in good faith, is that it is not limited to one time per driver per race. Multiple laps can be made up in a race each time there is a caution. Kyle Busch made up 5 laps in one caution filled race at the Glen in 2006 and posted a top ten finish from 5 laps back! See here for Opens in a new tab.more details.

Also it is questioned by fans and some drivers as it puts someone who was basically a couple of miles behind ( talladega for example) into the race when they haven’t really done anything to deserve it. The Lucky Dog name may not be universally liked but it seems more accurate a phrase to describe it !

Why are There Other Names for the Lucky Dog Rule?

Some People thought that the Lucky Dog name for the rule was going to be confusing further down the line, and despite being correct it is still the most common way to describe the rule.

So in its place there have been a number of alternatives used to describe the lucky dog rule. As we mentioned above these can be the beneficiary rule, the free pass, the pardon and the wave around. However the most common name is still the lucky dog rule. We kinda liek it that way.

Final Thoughts

So now that we know all about this quirky bit of stock car racing culture, perhaps it gives us a bit of insight into what the sport is really all about.

While both the lucky dog moniker (with some networks such as Fox refusing to use it, saying that it is uninformative for new race viewers) and the rule which it represents were both the subject of criticism in the first few years following, at this point it is clear that the rule is here to stay, and so is the lucky dog.

When you think about it, the lucky dog mascot really makes a good symbol of how Nascar has historically tried to present itself: as good, wholesome, family-friendly fun, and a great way for families to enjoy a weekend of excitement.


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