Sunday something remarkable happened on the third restart at Bristol. Matt Kenseth was running second and was thus lined up beside the leader, Brad Keselowski. When the green flag dropped Kenseth clearly beat Keselowski to the line. Normally, Kenseth would have been black-flagged for such a violation and forced to make a pass through drive down pit road, likely costing him one or more laps. So was it a matter of a ball and strike call that the guys in the tower just missed? Here’s the weird part: After the race NASCAR said what Kenseth did was perfectly legal despite having penalized numerous drivers over the decades for the same infraction. We’ll get to their logic, or lack thereof, in a bit.
Restarts in any form of auto-racing from the bullrings to the big leagues have always involved a bit of gamesmanship. Obviously the leader wants to get away clean and resume whatever gap he had on the field prior to the caution. It’s fairly common for the leader to either try to accelerate early to surprise the rest of the field, or to start to accelerate then lift off (or in some dastardly cases even tap the brakes…dirty pool) so that the guy he’s racing has to lift suddenly or even stab the brakes to avoid beating the leader to the line. There have been countless accidents over the years caused by the accordion effect when the leader plays games on a restart. But over the decades in most forms of racing, the leader controls the pace of the field once the pace vehicle leaves the track. After all he should have some advantage right? He is leading the damned race after all.
More recently NASCAR has added two painted lines to the track. The leader is supposed to accelerate away smartly anywhere he chooses between those two lines.
For the second place driver there’s a completely different agenda. If he can get away with it, he’ll likely lag a little behind the leader so he can try to anticipate the start, actually accelerating before the leader to gain momentum. Done perfectly, the second place driver will pass the leader inches beyond, but not before, the start-finish line. This sort of antics drives some guys like Tony Stewart nuts. It wasn’t as obvious as Kenseth’s infraction at Bristol, but at Las Vegas Stewart and Jimmie Johnson were playing with one another’s heads on a late restart. Johnson in second was laying back several car lengths hoping to ambush the No. 14 car on the restart.
Stewart was livid over the radio, demanding NASCAR tell Johnson to pull up alongside him in the proper formation. When NASCAR elected not to do so, Stewart rode his brakes until he dropped back beside the No. 48. Meanwhile, the drivers directly behind them were probably all thinking, “These two boneheads are going to end up wrecking all of us” and backing off accordingly. Which of course is what Stewart wanted. It was about as a sloppy a restart as I’ve seen in pro-racing in many a year.
If NASCAR didn’t get Stewart’s message at Las Vegas they certainly must have gotten it prior to heading to Bristol. Asked about the apparent botched no-call on Kenseth, NASCAR official Kerry Tharp had a new interpretation of the way the rules work coming to a green flag. Tharp said Keselowski hadn’t “mashed” the gas between the two restart lines and as such Kenseth had “the right of way to accelerate”. Say what? If you’re going to toss aside nearly sixty years of precedent shouldn’t there at least be a press release prior to the race?
One of the beauties of the new fuel injection system (and I’ve been sold on FI ever since I got my Nightster) is now NASCAR will have data after the race that shows exactly how Keselowski was playing with his throttle during the restart in question. The problem is there are no wires running to Keselowski’s or any other drivers helmets. The trace data will show what the driver did, but it’s now left up to NASCAR to decide why they did it.
Was Keselowski looking for an advantage on that restart? I think he was. He knew Kenseth had a strong car and it would be tough to pass him. But there are other circumstances wherein a driver might not “mash” the gas coming to a restart particularly late in a race. If the driver is on worn tires he might ease onto the gas to avoid buzzing (spinning) the rear tires. If in fact he does get rear wheel spin, he might be forced to ease out of the throttle to let them catch. (Which raises a question I’d like to see answered before it happens. If the leader spins the tires coming to a restart and thus fails to gain speed does the second place driver have “the right of way to accelerate?)
In another instance, perhaps the frontstretch is still covered in fluids and speedy dry after the wreck that bought out the caution. Perhaps the leader is unsure of how much traction he’s going to have as he accelerates, so he eases into the gas rather than mashing it. Or perhaps our leader has been told to conserve gas with only a few laps left to run. One way a driver saves gas is to ease into the throttle rather than “mash” it. Is that now illegal too?
Gamesmanship on restarts has been part of racing for as long as there’s been racing. But some recent changes to the NASCAR landscape have made the games even more important to play. Recall it wasn’t that many years ago cars used to restart with the lead lap cars in the outside line and the lapped down cars lined up to their inside. Fans have overwhelmingly approved of the new side by side form of restarts, as do I, but for the leader it means he’s got a bunch of fast cars lined up beside him and behind him. He wants to get away cleanly and quickly. At the cookie cutter tracks where passing is at a premium the best time for a driver to make up positions is on the restarts so things typically get a bit frantic each time the green flag waves. If you can’t pass them on a restart you’re going to have to beat them on fuel mileage it seems these days.
In issuing Sunday’s decision NASCAR has opened a Pandora’s Box that is likely to cause a lot of controversy. After the race Keselowski was magnanimous stating the No. 17 beating him to the line was no big deal. Of course he was magnanimous! After all, Keselowski eventually passed Kenseth and won the race. Had the No. 17 held on to win, I’m sure Keselowski and a lot of other folks would have been downright livid. And if it ever comes down to Kyle Busch beating Junior on a final restart when Junior had been leading the sport might go into meltdown mode.
If this is the new rule then NASCAR has to be consistent explaining the rule to the drivers, teams and fans. Either that or just get out of the way and let drivers decide things amongst themselves….no more rules for restarts. Go ahead, pass the leader, switch lanes, hang back twenty yards so you have a head of steam coming to the flag, or if someone tries snookering you just go ahead and wreck him so that SOB doesn’t even take the green flag. It might behoove track owners to hire a few more tow trucks if that’s how the game is going to be played. To adopt a “rule” so obviously open to interpretation to replace one these drivers have been dealing with all their racing careers seems foolish. It’s just another example of NASCAR buying the highest caliber rifle they can find, getting the scope perfectly sighted in, reloading and once again shooting themselves in the foot.
In the open wheel series they tried a different method of handling restart shenanigans that seemed to work fairly well. The flagman was allowed to wave off a restart if he didn’t feel the field was in proper formation. In the event the second place driver beat the leader to the line the yellow flag would wave immediately. Both drivers would be warned they were being watched prior to the next attempt at a restart and anyone playing games was going to be black-flagged.
Well, NASCAR this is another fine mess you’ve gotten yourselves into. Good luck with that. To paraphrase Sheryl Crow:
I have a face I can not show,
Make the rules up as I go,
Try to love me if you can,
Are you strong enough to be a fan?
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