The Frontstretch: Matt McLaughlin's Thinkin' Out Loud: Bristol Race Recap by Matt McLaughlin -- Monday March 19, 2012

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Matt McLaughlin's Thinkin' Out Loud: Bristol Race Recap

Matt McLaughlin · Monday March 19, 2012



Brad Keselowski is now two-for-two in the last two Sprint Cup races at Bristol, earning his first NASCAR victory of 2012 after holding off Matt Kenseth in the frantic final laps.

The Key Moment – Brad Keselowski prevailed on the final restart to keep Matt Kenseth behind him. Kenseth drove for all he was worth as the duo battled through lapped traffic, to no avail; he lost the race by seven-tenths of a second.

In a Nutshell – A classic battle of skill, stealth and strategy.

Dramatic Moment – Keselowski and Kenseth had what appeared to be equally fast cars for the second half of the race, so it came down to which driver wanted it most and dealt with lapped traffic better. It was a whale of a show for the fans.

What They’ll Be Talking About Around the Water Cooler This Week

College basketball… more and more and more frickin’ basketball. Seriously, if I hear one more damned word about March Madness, I’m going off the grid until after Easter. Anyone know where to download an application to join the Amish church? I can’t find their website.

Kenseth, running second to Keselowski, clearly beat the leader to the line once and possibly twice. Why did the NASCAR referees swallow their whistles and not call a foul? The evidence was irrefutable. Call it the luck of the Irish, I suppose.

After Sunday’s race, the debate is going to rage on which is better, the old Bristol track configuration or the new one? I know I’m going to be in the minority on this issue but I prefer the new graduated banking. The top lane is faster but the bottom lane is the shorter away around the track. To make a pass, a driver needs to stalk his prey, set him up and then keep his car fast down low for a few laps to prevail. One slight slip-up? You’re forced to begin the whole process all over again. Thus a good run at Bristol now requires patience, planning and strategy as opposed to the old layout that rewarded brute force. I mean come on, did you really prefer those old Bristol wreckfests, with eighteen cautions in a 250-mile event and the pace car leading the most laps just because it occasionally involved drivers throwing crap at each other? You want to watch grown men behaving badly? Watch the next Republican debate.

The thing about punching race cars is it tends to hurt you a lot more than the car, as Kyle Busch will probably attest. In punching the roof of his No. 18, Busch also dented the one body part on that car that hadn’t already been damaged.

Rick Hendrick and “co-owner” Jeff Gordon (pictured) will be facing John Middlebrook Tuesday in a “last gasp” appeal to save major penalties from impacting Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 car.

Is it really safe for the drivers of cars patched together as badly as the Nos. 5, 99, and 18 to even return to the track after battlefield surgery? I was particularly concerned about the No. 5 Chevy, which was absent its driver side door panel amongst other vital bits and pieces.

This Tuesday (tomorrow when this column is published) will mark the final appeal of Hendrick Motorsports for the penalties assessed for the C-post violations with the car prior to the Daytona 500, a long, long, time ago in a universe far away. While doubtless there will be another media circus worthy of the Lindsay Loathsome trial(s), what’s the likelihood the penalties will be reduced or even overturned? Normally, I’d say slim to none but then the final referee, John Middlebrook, is a frequent dinner companion of team owner Rick Hendrick. Maybe NASCAR should be allowed a court of final resort in case their decision is overturned as well, presenting evidence to Judge Joe Brown? Just in case, whoever is feeding the media this week might want to add some of Alice’s magic mushrooms to the menu?

Well apparently “Saint Patrick” is an Italian fellow who converted Ireland to Catholicism, not the driver of the No. 7 car in the Nationwide Series as ESPN would have you believe. Saturday Patrick started the Nationwide race 27th and fell a lap down on Lap 58 of a rare, extended green flag period at Bristol. She’d finish the race two laps behind, a distant 19th and has yet to finish a race this season inside the top 10. Maybe they should repaint her car a different color? Older fans might recall a green race car was considered bad luck in the days of yore.

It’s probably no more than a pipe dream speedway, but I’m still intrigued by the idea. Bruton Smith has announced he’d like to build a replica of Germany’s infamous Nurburgring in Nevada. He plans a track that is an exact duplicate of the famous 13-mile plus road course, right down to the angle and banking of the corners and each elevation change. Why out West? Simple: there’s plenty of space available, for cheap; the government of Nevada owns 84 percent of the land in the state. For those who don’t know, the Nurburgring has become the hot spot for wringing out concept cars and production vehicles for car makers to prove the roadworthiness of their product. In addition, anyone with a valid driver’s license in Germany can pay to hot lap around the track in their personal car or motorcycle with no fear of a traffic ticket. That’s what I’d like to see at a track that size in Nevada. But of course, we live in a litigious society which would probably eliminate a chance for such fun. Too bad… not to mention there’s probably some Great Horned Southwestern Spitting Toad, one that the environmentalists would holler might get run over at such a track or at least might be annoyed by the noise.

Let’s set a couple things straight. “The Blue Deuce” hasn’t won all those races for Penske at Bristol. Rusty Wallace’s car was black and yellow (but still sponsored by Miller) in many of those events. And the Bristol night race is run in the Summer, not the Fall unless they use metric seasons in Tennessee.

Tickets to even the Bristol winter race used to be all but impossible to get but like Jerry might sing, “From that Cup, no more.” A generously estimated 102,000 fans attended this year’s event, down significantly from the 120,000 ticket buyers last year. The size of the crowd at California next weekend might be even more telling. Whatever late season momentum NASCAR gained with a stirring championship battle that went down to the wire appears to have been squandered. Of course, four buck a gallon gas (and it’s over five bucks in some spots in California) isn’t helping any.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Kyle Busch had to be feeling a little rough after his No. 18 car, the pre-race favorite was roughed up less than 30 laps into Sunday’s event.

Jeff Gordon had a car that appeared to be as stout as the Nos. 2 and 17, but incidental contact with his teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr. as they scrapped over a top-5 spot cut down a tire on his Chevy and put him into the wall. Gordon limped home 35th.

Think the new Bristol layout doesn’t make for enough carnage? Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, and Kasey Kahne (among others) would probably beg to disagree. The early race wreck (lap 24) was particularly hard for Busch, a prohibitive favorite coming into the event. None of that trio wound up inside the top 30.

Remember the mentally refreshed, happy new Denny Hamlin whom the sports psychologist had helped rid of the funk he was in for all of 2011? I think the team left him in Phoenix. A pit crew member left a wheel loose on Sunday, dropping a clearly unhappy Hamlin (who hadn’t been all that mirthful all weekend) into a 20th-place finish, two laps off the pace.

Robby Gordon and his underfunded team hauled a Dodge to Bristol but were unable to get the engine started. That’s a new one on me. (So was it an electrical issue or a fuel injection problem?) The McLaren engineers might still be figuring it out; as it is, Gordon never made a Friday qualifying attempt and missed the race.

Earnhardt had a solid top-5 run going when he got nailed for speeding on pit road late in the event. Losing track position isn’t the only thing the teams and drivers gamble on pitting when most of the top of the field stays out. By the checkered, the No. 88 was still stuck, running as the last car on the lead lap in 15th.

A.J. Allmendinger started on the outside pole and even led 54 laps on Sunday. But some sort of handling issue dogged him the second half of the race and Allmendinger wound up 17th.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

The only other driver who left Bristol Sunday as happy as the winner was Brian Vickers. He led 132 laps and finished fifth in his return to Cup competition, the first of a limited schedule of events for Michael Waltrip Racing. Perhaps just as notably, he did so with no questionable judgment calls or controversy.

Keselowski was actually the third man into the lap 24 Smith-Kahne incident but managed to snake his way through the carnage with only a bump to the nose of his Dodge.

Jimmie Johnson, who finished ninth was right behind that big wreck but managed to barely squeeze through on the bottom. In fact, if “Five-Time” was running those widened C-pillars he’d probably have gotten hit on both sides.

Elliott Sadler is off to a solid start in his quest for a championship. His victory in Saturday’s Nationwide event was his second in four 2012 races in that series.

Worth Noting

  • The first four points-paying Cup races have been won by a Ford, a Toyota, a Chevy and a Dodge.
  • Sunday’s top-10 finishers drove a Dodge, a Ford, three Toyotas and five Chevys.
  • MWR had all three drivers finish in the top 5, the first time that’s happened in the history of the organization. In fact, until recently it was a major accomplishment to have all three cars even finish a race.
  • Keselowski became the fourteenth driver to win back-to-back races at Bristol.
  • Only two drivers, Biffle and Paul Menard, have managed top-10 finishes in three of this season’s four points races.
  • Truex’s third-place finish was his best since he also finished third at last season’s Homestead finale.
  • Bowyer’s fourth-place finish was his best since he won at Talladega last fall.
  • Brian Vickers (fifth) scored his best Cup finish since he also finished fifth at Talladega last fall.
  • What a season it’s been for Jamie McMurray (seventh). He started the year with two DNFs and has since posted two top-10 results.
  • Juan Problem Montoya scored his first top 10 of the 2012 season. As an added bonus, no jet dryers exploded on Sunday.
  • Carl Edwards (39th) suffered his worst Cup finish since Atlanta in the spring of 2010. (That’s the race NASCAR parked Edwards after he put Keselowski on his roof.)

What’s the Points?

Greg Biffle maintains his championship lead and is now nine points ahead of Harvick. Kenseth’s runner-up finish advances him two spots to third in the standings. Martin Truex, Jr. moves up four spots to fourth, continuing his best ever start for the NAPA Toyota. Hamlin and Earnhardt are now tied for the fifth position.

Tony Stewart, after his accident late slipped to seventh in the standings. Clint Bowyer’s strong run Sunday trampolined him up six positions to eighth, tied with Joey Logano. Paul Menard rounds out the top 10, trailed closely by Jeff Burton and Ryan Newman.

Keselowski’s win also advanced him eight positions to thirteenth in the standings; he’d now earn the first “wild card” to get him inside the Chase. Further back, despite the Daytona penalty, Johnson is now listed as 17th. If that 25-point deduction is overturned Tuesday, he’ll be eleventh in the standings.

But even if the consequences stand, for Johnson it could be worse. His teammate Gordon, who hasn’t been penalized, finds himself an uncharacteristic 23rd in the points race, a whopping 72 behind Biffle after just four events. The fourth HMS driver, Kahne, finds himself in even more dire circumstances. After yet another wreck, he fell six spots to an abysmal 32nd. If Kahne’s No. 5 finds itself outside the top 35 in owner points after next week’s California event, he’ll have to race his way into the field starting at Martinsville. I’m fairly certain Kahne has the equipment and talent to make every race on speed, but losing that top 35 safety blanket has got to be worrisome for a driver.

Kurt Busch needs to post a few good finishes as well. He’s 27th in the standings, just 23 points ahead of that top 35 cutoff. And if points were awarded now… we’d all have a lot of beautiful free weekends to go out and ride our motorcycles.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans, with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic) — We’ll give this one five icy cold bottles of Corona, dyed green in honor of Saint Paddy’s.

Next Up – Oh, boy! The circuit heads off to Fontana, historically one of the most tedious tracks on the circuit. Like an insurance agent will tell you, hope for the best but expect the worst. By the way, is it possible the reason Fontana has problems selling tickets is because three of the first five Cup races are all held in the same region? Whoops.

Contact Matt McLaughlin

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
Happiness Is…Arrogance, Less, Next, and the Outdoors
Frontstretch Foto Funnies: It’s Not Gonna Fit…


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MJR in Springfield, VA
03/19/2012 08:10 AM

…which is better…. Let’s start a poll, in my opinion so far it’s: 2 – Zip for the new configuration. I like the racing now – and there’s racing going on, all around the track, every lap, all the time!!! I’ve been to several races in Thunder Valley. The only good things about the old configuration were the bathroom breaks (yellow flags). It used to be there was never a line in the latrines. That’s because there was a caution every 15 – 20 laps – whether they needed it or not. Let’s hope NA$CAR sees it that way and doesn’t mandate some kind of change to screw things up.

Bill B
03/19/2012 08:44 AM

The racing isn’t bad at the new Bristol but it’s not the spectacle that it once was and that is why the stands are half filled.
I think it’s a better race now than it was before the reconfiguration but it was very special before because the two Bristol races stood out from the other 34 races. There was nothing else like them.

So, at the risk of being accused of being one of those “I only watch it for the wrecks” people, I will say that I liked the old configuration better.

With that said, I still think Bristol racing is better than any of the cookie cutter 1.5-2 mile tracks.

Don Mei
03/19/2012 08:59 AM

The only reason those rolling wrecks are out there is Nascar’s insistence on awarding points through 43rd place. If they cut off paying points to say twenty fifth place, the problem would disappear or they could simply black flag cars without impacting the points race.

03/19/2012 09:38 AM

I never thought I’d see so many empty seats at a Bristol race. It looked REALLY bad on TV.

And the race was BORING. Bristol boring? Yeah.

But I wonder if it’s the chase that’s hurt the racing more than the concrete. Drivers are SO careful because they need those points.

Whatever the case, it’s sad to lose what used to be MUST WATCH racing at Bristol. Now, it’s not much different from a 1.5 mile track.

03/19/2012 10:26 AM

If there is a safety caution to check tire wear on a green race track shouldn’t it be mandatory to change all four tires and check tire wear?

03/19/2012 10:49 AM

I’m with you on the track configuration. Heckuva battle between Kez and Kenseth. The tickets are still pricey and so is the gas. When it really hits NASCAR in the wallet, trust me, they’ll do something then.

03/19/2012 11:47 AM

Let the debate rage on. I think I came here last year after the Bristol race and commented and I will do it again.

First, I have been going to the Bristol Spring race every year since 1995. I have only been to one night race and that was 2001, I believe.

If this track was just built somewhere else, people would probably rave about the racing, at least compared to most other tracks. However, the problem is, this is NOT Bristol Racing now. Its still @Bristol, but its not the type of racing that filled as many seats as they could squeeze around the 1/2 mile track.

I do not go to races to see wrecks, but I enjoyed going to Bristol and seeing good hard, bullring racing. What happened to “rubbin is racin”?

For all you football fans out there, lets try this comparison.

What if the “Super Bowl” was a touch football game instead of full contact tackle? Would it still be as exciting? I think not. You dont want to see players hurt, but its part of the game, well wrecking is sometimes the by product of good hard racing, and sometimes short patience!
Both are very exciting!

Sure the drivers love it now, its not 500 laps of mental fatique! It’s 500 laps of cruising around now, with little to no worry of even getting a donut on your door. I remember when you were hard pressed to find a car on the track after 500 laps without a dent, ding or donut minimum! Now most of the cars look like they just came off the hauler after the race is over.

All the empty seats have way more to do with the pavement reconfig, the IROC type cars, and the stupid Chase than the economy!

If the racing was still as exciting as it was just a few years ago, the economy “might” keep it from being a sell out, but it wouldnt keep the place from being nearly full every year! People FOUND ways to make it to and into Bristol Motor Speedway even when it sold out way in advanced. Now people would rather just stay home and save their money, because the action on the track just isnt worth the expense!

My Dad has been a season ticket holder since the mid 1980’s. 6 of the original 8 for the August night race no longer go. One couple quit going a few years ago, selling their tickets every year, then this past year, the other 2 couples informed my Dad they no longer want their tickets anymore either. Their reason, the race just wasnt worth the sacrifices anymore. There are 4 of us that still go to the Spring race every year, but every year we complain about how different (boring) the races are here now compared to how it used to be.

#ThisAINTBristolBaby! (its a twitter thing)

03/19/2012 12:54 PM

I’ve been saying this for years. Make the damn tires wear out before a full fuel run and you’ll see a lot better racing. Anytime you turn a race into a pitbox strategy session, the racing itself suffers. There’s nothing wrong with these tracks, it’s the freaking tires.

Goodyear has become so conservative with thier compounds that guys are running half of these races on the same set of tires. Put things back in the hands of the drivers and make them learn how to race again.

03/19/2012 01:26 PM

Matt,you should have referred to both parties the Republicans and the Democrats.
Happy to see Brian Vickers get a second chance and do well.

03/19/2012 01:32 PM

So I dvr the race and start to watch it about 2 hours after start time. I begin to fast forward to get past the bs and actually fall asleep in ff mode. Missed the whole race, so I give it 1 can of LaCroix for a good nap.

Kevin in SoCal
03/19/2012 01:32 PM

Holy Crap! Matt has changed his tune and actually likes the new Bristol now? Stop the presses! Call the National Guard! Matt’s been replaced with an alien.
What’s with Dale Jr causing so many wrecks recently? Has his desparation finally caught up with his talent level?
Part of the reason for having so many West coast races is its still Winter time. The rest of the racetracks in the North and East are snowed under. Its the nature of the beast.
Robby Gordon’s issue was a shorted wiring harness, not an EFI issue, according to SPEED.

03/19/2012 01:40 PM

Well, Kev, historically you’re right, but here in Amish Country today it’s flirting with 80 degrees. I Ddon’t think daytime highs have been below 65 for 10 days now and it’s often been in the 70s. Anyone up for calling the teams and telling them to show up at Dover this weekend?


03/19/2012 02:03 PM

102,000 fans? There goes the NASCAR PR machine again. There were more empty seats than there were butt-filled seats. Oh yeah, like at Fontana, they were under the bleachers getting out of the sun, right?

It’s evident that the track reconfiguration in not taken kindly in Tennessee. And it’s not quite the same on TV. I think I like the old Bristol better. There was more action on the track. Now you see more riding around and less banging and bumping. Except when they show Tony Stewart.

And Matt, your point about 3 early races out “West” is a good one.

The schedulers seem to think it’s always warm and sunny in these parts. In a word, Wrong.

Wait til next week at Fontana. It won’t be warm and sunny for that race, again.

JD in NC
03/19/2012 02:15 PM

To be sure, there are many factors that are contributing to the smaller crowds at Bristol. One thing not mentioned by anyone else yet is Kyle Busch’s recent dominance at the track. Before any of KB’s fans get all upset about this idea, even they would have to agree that the majority of fans at any race boo him the loudest, and cheer if he has a problem during the race. The point is a lot of KB haters (myself included) are less inclined to take the time and spend the money to go to a race where he has a recent history of dominance. Bristol is my closest track and I haven’t been since 09.

03/19/2012 02:55 PM

I’ve been to the august night race – once – before the track was reconfigured. Getting to that track in person to see the race had been on my “to do” list and I’ve never regretted the $ and time it took. I wouldn’t waste a dollar on it now. Even watching it on TV before the configuration was changed was exciting, now it’s watching paint dry. Granted some of that may be the way the TV broadcasts have changed since Fox is all about the cult of personality and ESPN is all about it’s script – both networks like to play with their toys far more than actually showing the racing. It may be better racing, but it’s NOT Bristol.

03/19/2012 03:30 PM

As soon as Kyle got taken out, 90% of the excitement was gone.

03/19/2012 03:46 PM

Maybe, but if Junior got taken out 90 percent of the fans would have been gone.

03/19/2012 04:54 PM

It’s a sad state of affairs when an Earnhardt apologizes profusely for accidentally rubbing another car at Bristol.

I liked the old configuration, because rubbin’ is racin’ so maybe Underbird is right about the tires.

Duece Deucekin
03/19/2012 05:09 PM

What’s 50 feet long and has 12 teeth….?

The funnel cake line at Bristol Motor Speedway…

Much better racing now at Bristol than before which was not racing at all and honestly it isn’t NASCAR keeping people at home but rather the economy and soaring inflation…this is especially true in certain areas of the country where there is not a good paying job to be found…

03/19/2012 05:37 PM

Bristol used to be unique. No other track came close (well, maybe Martinsville) to the non stop bumping and grinding that Bristol had. With so many cookie cutter tracks that offer LOTS of racing room, you can see races like what happened at Bristol an almost any other weekend. I used to have season tickets, but no more. I can see ‘racing’ like this at MIS 2 hours from home, (but I don’t bother). I’m sure not going to drive 12 hours to watch a race that’s just like all the others. Yes, the ‘new’ track might have better ‘racing’, but it certainly doesn’t have the excitement of the ‘old’ Bristol. Trying to ‘sell’ the races there now as ‘racing the way it aught to be’ is false advertising. I’m so glad that I got to see the OLD Bristol racing before the ‘chase’ and the repaving tamed it.

03/19/2012 07:35 PM

Did you see the driver intro for #$%#@ Denny Hamlin? What?? I am sure FOX then dubbed in fake cheering. There was an exhuberant cheer from the stands, but in the background, no one was doing anything differnt than what they were before he came out. Can’t believe it has come to this.

old gal from socal
03/19/2012 08:24 PM

Jr agrees with you underbird: “It’s possible to have an awesome race here. And I think Goodyear could come in and pull some trickery with the tires and improve the racing.” In the same interview he applauds the first race at Bristol after the config. as being very competitive. I remember how much progressive banking improved the racing (initially) at Homestead. The drivers all complained this year about the hard tire at Phoenix and Vegas, both progressive-banking tracks…and the racing WAS less than stellar.

cfool…thanks for the laugh! I can see that happening to me, especially at snoozefest Fontana this weekend!

03/19/2012 10:31 PM

Ive been to bristol a few times both spring and night since 94 always before it didnt matter how broke I was or how much gas cost nothing mattered I was going. Maybe it is better racing now without all the cautions but its not the same track that I was willing to be put on 3 yr waiting list just for a chance at tickets. Another good read Matt

Bad Wolf
03/20/2012 12:57 AM

Old Bristol.

phil h
03/20/2012 01:15 AM

SMI owner Bruton Smith is the culprit,he levigated Charlotte and the track lost its personality it had for years with its unique bumps and dips!

Then the most sacriligious act in racetrack history………..HE screwed up BRISTOL!!!

why should we be surprised,its a**holes like him who cost us North Wilkesboro and Rockingham!

The old fart strikes again!!!!

03/20/2012 08:30 AM

Agree with you Matt about the new being better racing, but I don’t go anymore. I dropped my season tickets due to what a weekend cost me. ~$400 a couple for tickets for NW and Cup. ~$450 for an RV site (for the week even though I only stay 3 nights) with water and electric. Throw in food and gas and that’s a big weekend. I go to Martinsville, $80 for the tickets and $22 a night for camping for 4 nights, $160 total ccmpared to $850. Why would I go to Bristol. My 2 weeke in Charlotte in May barely cost more than 1 at Bristol. Those folks in TN think alot of themselves.

03/20/2012 09:35 AM

I’ll always prefer good close racing without beating and banging, so count me as preferring the new Bristol. If I want to see beating and banging, there’s always Martinsville, which is a lot tighter, more exciting and also SAFER to beat and bang on.

The PROBLEM with Sunday’s race was that FOX made it their mission to only ever cover the top 5. While Kenseth vs BK was fun to watch, there was even better racing back in the pack that no one heard a damn thing about.

03/20/2012 01:30 PM

Well, a few folks agree.

However, I think I can put it in better perspective. I remember when they used to run bias ply tires. That made for some awesome racing because the drivers that could manage their tires the best usually came to the front during a run, those that couldn’t would run fast for the first 20 laps or so, then they’d start fading. This made for lots of “comers and goers” (God, I can’t believe I’m quoting D freaking W).

When they went to radial tires, there began to be talk of running two or three fuel runs on left sides, then Kurt Bush won his first race at Bristol running the same four almost all of the second half of the race. I was there. Saw it first-hand.

Since they’ve gone to these radials, and they’ve made the compound so hard, it tends to be more about track position and fuel strategy than managing your average speeds over a fuel run. That’s what makes the racing suck so bad anymore.

Think about it. If a guy starts 10th on a run, should he just stroke away in 10th for 100 laps, then pit for fuel only to gain track position, or should he run his ass off for the run, make up two positions, then have to pit for two tires with everyone else and still come out 10th? It begs for the drivers to be more conservative until the last run of the day.

Now if that doesn’t describe about 80% of the races run in the last 5 years, I don’t know what does.

03/21/2012 07:18 PM

Matt, I find it interesting that the new style of racing at Bristol which you applaud is the exact same style of racing you see at road courses, but you find those boring. You have limited passing opportunities and need to set up your pass for a few laps. If it doesn’t work, you start over again.