The term “lucky dog” often is used by broadcasters during races. It refers to a rule that allows the first car not on the lead lap to rejoin the lead lap on a caution. Like most rules it has a back story and an evolution.
In the interest of safety, NASCAR eliminated its policy of scoring races only at the start/ finish line. But in order for this to be accomplished, an electronic scoring system had to be implemented to replace the handwritten system. A transponder was placed inside each car and tracks were outfitted with electronic scoring loops.
This meant that the strategy of cars not on the lead lap racing the leader back to the line when the leader slowed for a caution flag was gone. This had the potential to create a dangerous situation with cars racing through crash scenes in order to regain a lap. The new electronic scoring system was able to take a snapshot of the field and freeze the running order for scoring purposes.
Because the first car not on the lead lap is now given back one of its lost laps, competition increases among the group of cars not on the lead lap.
As with most rules, there are exceptions. Drivers are not eligible for the free pass if they caused the caution or are not on the lead lap because of a NASCAR-issued penalty.
Broadcaster Benny Parsons coined the term lucky dog in the early days of the new rule. Jimmy Spencer was one of the earliest recipients of the free pass and was sponsored by Sirius satellite radio. Its mascot decal, a large cartoon dog logo in honor of the astronomical dog star Sirius, was emblazoned on Spencer’s hood. The cameras zoomed in on his car and a nickname was born.
The first time the procedure was used was the Dover Cup race in September 2003. Todd Bodine was the very first free pass recipient. Ryan Newman was also awarded a lap back during the race and went onto victory.
On some media outlets Aaron’s, whose mascot is a dog, sponsors the lucky dog. The broadcast networks that do not have that particular sponsorship deal refer to the rule as a free pass.
(Patrick Reynolds is a professional racing mechanic who has worked for several NASCAR teams.)