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Beside the Rising Tide: A Fine Line For Brad Keselowski On Restart

Down here it’s just winners and losers, baby,

And don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line…

-Bruce Springsteen-

Be Careful of What You Wish For – Everyone from the drivers right down to us lowly fans asked NASCAR to start policing their own restart rules after some very controversial calls the last few seasons (including one as recently as last week at Joliet.) Well, um, maybe we should have asked them what exactly those rules were before speaking up. That might have been a bit awkward in that they didn’t (and apparently still don’t) know what those rules are either. If they do, perhaps they might have sent the drivers a copy of the memo. As is par for the course at New Hampshire Motor Speedway there wasn’t a whole lot of passing except on the restarts and a few dominant cars had much of the field looking like they were dragging anchors behind their festively festooned play-pretties. (Plaid? Really?) That led to various strategies among the teams as they tried to figure a way to snooker a win away from Kevin Harvick or Brad Keselowski.

Greg Biffle and his team (hell, his entire organization, Roush Fenway Racing) were desperately in need of a good run and decided to play the long odds staying out (along with some other teams) while Harvick and Keselowski (who’d been running 1-2 most of the race) ducked into the pits. When the No. 2 team beat the No. 4 outfit out of the pits, it seemed likely he’d positioned himself to win the race. Biffle’s Ford hadn’t shown the sort of speed the No. 2 had all day, and Biffle was left with the unenviable task of having to stretch his fuel mileage anyway, so he would have been fighting with one hand tied behind his back if Mssrs. Harvick and Keselowski came calling. Keselowski made it up to second just before another caution flag shuffled the deck. Keselowski had the faster car, fresher tires and a good deal more fuel than the No. 16. It appeared that Keselowski would make quick work of the journeyman driver once racing resumed.

When the green flag dropped, Keselowski took off and NASCAR after reviewing the situation decided the former champion had jumped the gun. Oddly enough, Keselowski was in second place at the time, having been unable to clear the No. 16. A couple laps later, he was still in second when NASCAR issued a penalty for jumping the restart. Confused but knowing you can’t fight city hall, Keselowski did his drive-through penalty and fell back to 25th, though he eventually rallied to finish 12th, passing a bunch of them and getting some freebies as other lead-lap drivers ran out of gas.

What confused me is that I’d assumed the rule was, as it is in other forms of motorsport, that if you gained a position on a restart and gave it back everything was kosher. That is, in fact, the rule when it comes to a driver advancing his position in the “out of bounds” area below the double yellow line at Daytona or Talladega. But according to NASCAR that’s not the case and it says so right in their rulebook, which they are notoriously stingy about sharing (the latest copy I have is from 1998). That would be a common sense solution given there’s no way of knowing if the control driver (the leader) buzzed his tires, missed a gear or whatnot. In this particular instance the aggrieved party, Biffle, said he felt bad Keselowski had been penalized and couldn’t understand why the penalty had been issued. If every aggrieved party was that honest and reasonable about being wronged, a couple hundred thousand trial lawyers would be flipping burgers by the end of the week.

Since there can be no certainty as to what went on in both cars and in both drivers’ minds at the time, I’ve previously advocated a rule where if NASCAR felt it was likely the restart was botched, they’d wave off that start, line them back up, warn the driver who might have been coloring outside the lines, and try again. The chances they’d blow the call twice in a row are at least lower than getting it wrong just once. Some folks objected to that notion saying it would needlessly delay the race, as the pits would have to reopen again and there’d be several more laps run under caution. Says who? If that’s the case with a yellow flag, well, then just have someone sew up a new flag, perhaps purple with a magenta lining and small turquoise ducks in a dashing pattern across the face, and try the restart again on the next lap.

An obviously miffed Keselowski said from his seat in a golf cart after the race that NASCAR had apparently decided stock car racing was entertainment, not a sport. At which point, my guess is he left the track quickly before the powers-that-be heard the comment and invited him for a little sit-down in the trailer to discuss the issue. Sometimes NASCAR doesn’t say much in those post-race meetings. Some fans might not be aware that after a race there’s an even more spirited race among drivers to get back to their planes at the local airport to get aboard and lined up to takeoff before there’s a backlog of other planes waiting their turn. A couple hours sitting on the tarmac awaiting liftoff gives a driver some quiet contemplative time to ponder their indiscretion. It’s sort of like back when I was in middle school, where a teacher would give you detention but only hold you until the school buses left, leaving you to either walk home or wait for the late bus. (I used to be hell on wheels in school when I knew an older friend was picking me up anyway.) Could Keselowski be docked points this week for his remark? Brother, this is NASCAR. Anything can happen and Brian France is not a big fan of dissension in the ranks.

Back in the day, this wasn’t much an issue. Back then, the drivers on the lead lap lined up on the outside line with drivers one or more laps down to their inside. As such, if the second place runner jumped the start he’d have run into the back of the leader. If he passed the leader prior to the start-finish line such a blatant move would have been indisputable. Maybe it’s time NASCAR updates their “jumping the start” rule to reflect the current side-by-side restarts. But I’m as guilty as rest of you and even the drivers. We asked that NASCAR police the restarts better having forgotten our buddies at NASCAR could screw up a one-horse funeral in a one cemetery town.

(In the interest of full disclosure I picked Keselowski in this week’s Frontstretch staff pick game. But if you the award for winning that contest and multiplied it by 10,000 you couldn’t buy a sack of granfaloons with it.)

Moonlighting Madness – A lot of fans aren’t fond of Cup drivers deciding to moonlight in the Truck or Xfinity series on Saturdays. The standard objection I’ve read is that it’s like a Major League ball team taking on a Little League team, and considering most of the double-dippers are driving cars prepared by and affiliated with major Cup operations, it’s an apt analogy. But seldom is the chicanery as blatant as it was Saturday at NHMS during the truck race. Kyle Busch was leading the race. There’s no big surprise there. In 2013 and 2014 Busch cherry-picked wins in about half the truck races he entered, most often turning so-called races into routs. When the truck series finally goes belly up and Gil Grissom is called to do the autopsy, he’d going to find Busch’s fingerprints all over the corpse.

But while motoring along with a convincing lead, Busch decided that he’d had enough of leading the race for a while. He got out of the gas and let his de facto teammate Erik Jones pass him. So what you might ask? Well, as it turned out, young Mr. Jones is leading the points in the Truck Series. But Jones is in a very tight points battle with Matt Crafton, and Tyler Reddick is still within striking distance despite a poor outing at NHMS. Jones, Reddick and Crafton were separated by a mere 11 points heading into the race. (And to be fair, Reddick’s and Crafton’s teams have Cup team support as well, so this wasn’t a matter of David versus Goliath. It was more of a battle between David, Absalom and Uriah the Hittite.) Once Jones had led his bonus point for leading a lap, he stayed in the lead four more laps then dutifully pulled over and let Busch back by. So what’s one stinking point? The way this title battle is going, it could in fact decide a championship. Even the FS1 booth crew seemed stunned by Busch’s move and discussed it sounding like they were sucking on lemons.Images)

But Busch wasn’t through with his trickery. Caught in the pack, he managed to bang into something hard enough that he had a tire rub. But perhaps NASCAR wasn’t feeling too kindly towards young Master Busch at the moment as they declined to throw a yellow flag. In an attempt to draw one, Busch drove his car up into the wall, lightly and politely but hard enough to leave a mark. That normally does the trick in modern day NASCAR racing, and again the usually genteel announce team called Busch out on the tactic speculating that perhaps Busch was trying to knock something off his car to bring out a debris caution. That’s simply disingenuous. NASCAR doesn’t need to have debris to throw a debris caution.

Once again fans were left scratching their heads. How could such a blatant move by Busch not draw censure? What happened to the 100% rule? Well, that caught me off guard as well. As it turns out, that rule doesn’t state a driver has to be doing his best to maintain position every lap, he just has to give 100% to get the best finish he possibly can. There are in fact instances where a driver might choose to yield a position to another driver without a protracted fight. Perhaps the driver attempting to pass is on fresher rubber and closing down quickly. Perhaps the driver ahead of him is about to pit anyway and hopes he’ll be shown the same courtesy by the driver he lets pass when he returns to the track. (Always a dubious bet.) But if a driver can just pull over and wave his teammate pass without sanction it’ll get uglier before it gets better. In NASCAR’s much ballyhooed “ultra-exciting” Chase, particularly when it gets down to crunch time, will a teammate who has been eliminated simply roll over and let another driver from his organization pass to get a point for leading a lap or to let him improve his finishing position? Will he willfully interfere with a driver from another organization serving as a blocker to keep a rival from getting to a teammate ahead of him? And in the end will a driver who is no longer in the hunt wreck a driver from another organization to let his teammate claim the title? It’s not that it can’t happen, it just ain’t happened yet. And even if that dastardly driver gets black-flagged and a huge points penalty NASCAR can’t stop the race and let the championship contending team rebuild their car and re-assume their prior running position.

What probably should have happened Saturday at NHMS was for NASCAR to black-flag both Busch and Jones for a drive-through penalty to set precedent. On the other hand, having seen NASCAR’s officiating of that restart on Sunday, forget I said anything. Just let things play out as they may. Let’s just hope we don’t end up treated to race wins and championships decided in a court of law months after the season ends down the road.

As for Busch’s flat tire Sunday while busily at work doing his day job? Karma can be such a bitch, can’t it?

A Couple Quick Tidbits – I noticed Sunday that Clint Bowyer’s car had its normal “5-Hour Energy” primary sponsorship. One of the associate sponsors this week was Maxwell House coffee. Sounds a bit redundant doesn’t it? Reminds me of a joke I heard, “I used Red Bull instead of water when I made coffee today. I was halfway to work before I realized I’d forgotten my car.”

One of the big stories heading into the NHMS weekend was a powwow with NASCAR officials, the drivers, the crew chiefs and the team owners. Rumor had it that the topic of discussion would center on (or perhaps more likely be an edict on) the 2016 rules package. One of two things happened at the meeting. Either there was enough difference in opinion that some rethinking has been done, or NASCAR swore everyone to secrecy so they could make the big announcement later. Given the nature of the garage area I found it doubtful every participant would clam up. My chief fear is the rumors NASCAR might add restrictor plates on the cars at Michigan and Fontana. (And possibly Pocono, which would be an out and out disaster.) Like they say, “Stay tuned to this developing story.”

Harvick didn’t have a whole lot to say after the race Sunday. That’s his right. Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor. Obviously, having been relegated to a 21st-place finish at the wheel of what had been a dominant car when he ran out of fuel, Harvick wasn’t going to belt out “Tomorrow!” from Annie. His crew chief Childers did take to Twitter to explain what happened, though he said he was only doing so for people who “really cared” not “jackasses.”

I read it anyway. My guess is if he and his driver were honest, they’d admit they’d been counting on NASCAR’s standard “debris” caution with 10 laps to go to help them save enough gas to finish.

NBC executives are going to be holding their collective breaths this week. While it drew less attention than Harvick’s plight, perennial most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. also ran out of gas. After a decent if not stellar run, Earnhardt wound up 25th. That left the No. 88 driver just one point above the cutoff line in 12th, just one point ahead of Busch and Paul Menard and facing possible elimination after Sunday’s race. If you think the ratings have been bad for NASCAR racing this season to date, just watch what happens to them if Junior is eliminated from the playoffs. My guess is that Brian France and NBC execs are supervising the installation of a 502 cubic inch Chevy big block under the hood of the No. 88 car this week.

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J.smith

The transformation of young rookie drivers from brash greedy young kids who know it all and tell it like it is into sterile invertebrate filthy rich corporate shills is too predictable. Brad’s resistance to this transformation is especially enjoyable to witness. Reports in the garage area are that Brad is already down to 12 vertebrae and has to wear a HANS off track to hold his head up. NASCAR may have to step up to the next level with Brad and hit him below the belt. Resistance is futile Brad, better take a close look at eunuchs Burton and Jarrett.

Bill B

I didn’t watch the truck race but if Busch did intentionally bring out a caution then NASCAR should be penalizing him a lap, right? I’m tired of drivers with obvious issues trying to stay out on the track in their own self-interest. This could ruin someone else’s day if a part falls off and hits their car or, at the very least, change the way the race is going to play out. I understand why they do it. I can’t say I wouldn’t try to do the same thing if I were in the same position. However the easy fix is to say that anyone doing that should be penalized 5 laps,,,, if you have an obvious issue and don’t take the first opportunity to come into the pits or don’t drop down on the shoulder of the track out of the racing groove then 5 laps. That would make the penalty worse than the results of coming in under green and fixing the issue and would solve the problem.

As for…
“In NASCAR’s much ballyhooed “ultra-exciting” Chase, particularly when it gets down to crunch time, will a teammate who has been eliminated simply roll over and let another driver from his organization pass to get a point for leading a lap or to let him improve his finishing position? Will he willfully interfere with a driver from another organization serving as a blocker to keep a rival from getting to a teammate ahead of him? And in the end will a driver who is no longer in the hunt wreck a driver from another organization to let his teammate claim the title? It’s not that it can’t happen, it just ain’t happened yet”
…. this is something that I’ve been waiting to happen since they first announced the chase. The only clear cut case was Clint “spinout” Bowyer in 2013 which NASCAR promptly addressed and for which MWR paid a heavy price. IMO though, I would bet there have been many more less obvious situations where these types of shenanigans have been played. It’s just impossible to prove it. That is just another flaw of the chase system to determine a champion, more ways to play games with the points and impact the outcome.

Al Weaver

It seems the inside line is usually the one jumping the restart. If I’m on the inside and looking at a mark on the outside wall, say about 2 o’clock out the windshield. It would be a little harder to judge the starting line as opposed to being right next to it starting on the outside lane. Wouldn’t it be simpler to put two lines, one for each lane, right on the track?

Old_Timer

Heck … perhaps NA$$$CAR ought to just go back to the early ’70s philosophy and run restrictor plates at EVERY track. Who knows? Perhaps that will improve racing at some of the tracks. It certainly couldn’t make things WORSE! I’d try ANY-thing at this point. BTW, Matt … nice shirt!!

As far as “team orders” and other shenanigans … how do you police it, seriously? Other than overhearing “the word” being transmitted over their radios, I have no clue how any “extra-curricular activity” can be proven.

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