CHICAGO – From lengthening the controversial zone where a leader controls the field to expanding NASCAR’s enforcement, every Chase for the Sprint Cup contender seemingly had an opinion about restarts Thursday.
It’s been the topic du jour for the past month in the Sprint Cup Series, where prerace driver meetings have drawn a plethora of questions from drivers, crew chiefs and team owners about the proper procedures. After a final restart Saturday at Richmond International Raceway by winner Matt Kenseth left rival team owner Roger Penske fuming at NASCAR for the lack of a penalty, it remained top of mind for title contenders entering Sunday’s playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway on NBCSN.
Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon suggested NASCAR should lengthen the restart zone in which the leader is required to hit the accelerator. The distance of the zone in feet is the pit speed doubled – for example, if pit speed is 35 mph, the zone is 70 feet long.
“The first thing you’ve got to do is make the restart box bigger,” Gordon said. “I mean, we’ve been asking for this for a long time. It’s too small. We went from having it way too big to now it’s way too small.
“The box is so small that the guy who is in second place has an advantage. They can anticipate the start because they know you’re going to start in that box. So of course a driver is going to try to get any edge he can, and they’ve earned that right being the leader, and the leader is supposed to start the race. So that’s why guys are jumping.”
Gordon hadn’t seen a replay of Kenseth’s restart but said it wouldn’t be surprising if Kenseth left early because “he knows they’re not going to call it. And until they call it, guys are going to continue to push (the limit). And it’s mainly because the restart box isn’t big enough. If you make the restart box bigger, they’re not going to have to worry about calling that because now you can (go) anywhere in that box and get that edge you deserve (as the leader).”
NASCAR implemented double-file restarts six years ago, and the howls from competitors began almost immediately. For the 2013 Chase opener, a rule was changed to allow the second-place car to beat the leader to the starting line after gamesmanship prompted controversy.
Officials have maintained they want to leave the officiating in the drivers’ hands, but Kyle Busch said NASCAR needed to be more proactive in throwing the black flag for restart infractions.
“I’m not comfortable one bit with how they’re officiating it,” he said. “I think they need to step in. I think it’s gone too long. It’s really stupid the way some of these restarts are being handled by the drivers.”
Busch, who was in a precarious points position trying to make the Chase after missing the first 11 races of the season, said he had been punished by NASCAR’s laissez-faire policy.
“I’ve had it bite me,” he said. “I always have it in the back of my mind there’s a chance I’m going to get black-flagged for a bad restart or a poor choice in how I handle a restart. Some of these other guys, I don’t think they give a crap. They do whatever they want and get away with it.
“You can’t have one guy being scared of it and another guy taking advantage of not being afraid of it. You just have to start having everybody being afraid of NASCAR stepping in. … I have come to the conclusion myself that I can’t give NASCAR that opportunity to penalize me. I have to do it by the book and make sure it’s right so I don’t put it in their hands to make a bad choice because they’re really good at making bad choices for me.”
Busch said another option would be for drivers to return the positions gained by an unfair advantage on a restart. He suggested he would have done so if asked after passing Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin for the lead on a restart at Richmond.
“It’s probably the better thing to do to have the race still play out without having as big a penalty as if you were black-flagged and had to do a pass-through on pit road,” he said. “That kills your race.”
“If somebody is laying back and they get a run and pass a guy, if they want to give us the opportunity to fix it first, that’s fine. I’m OK with that. If somebody jumps a restart, if they give the lead up on the track or fall to second or third, but if they give it up and go back and race again, that’s OK in my book. You have a chance to fix it.
“But if you just flat out jump a restart and they don’t do anything about it, and it wins the race, that’s not what we need to be having happen.
What other Chase drivers were saying about restarts Thursday:
Kevin Harvick: “It’s very gray. I don’t think any of us really know for sure how far you can push it, but you have to push it because you can. How far is too far? I don’t think anybody really knows. If there’s going to be a restart zone, I would prefer it be pretty black and white as to how it’s managed. If there’s not going to be a restart zone, we just need to take the lines down and race like we did forever growing up with the leader being in control of the restart and going when you want to.”
Denny Hamlin: “I think drivers want longer restart zones. Ultimately now, it’s so short that if you don’t go right away, the second-place guy does – and knowing he can beat the first-place guy to the line, there’s no repercussions for it. At a local short track, (the box) is between (Turns) 3 and 4 and nearly the flagstand (where) the leader restarts the race. So the second-place person can’t anticipate that much. I think it would be better to open that zone up two or three times the size it is right now – and then don’t let that second-place guy be the first one to the line.”
Clint Bowyer: “NASCAR should do this: Call ‘em out. That’s all you’ve got to do. … All you’ve got to do is call somebody on ‘em once and that’ll fix the problem. I understand their intent of not wanting to get involved in that, but that’s not a good answer. Call ’em. Whether it’s me or anybody else. And if you do that once, I won’t do it again.”
Brad Keselowski: “I have said it before but I still view restarts as rock-paper-scissors, and you have to counter the moves of the person next to you. It starts with the leader in the zone, not being allowed to get there first. If the guy in second place is lagging back, the only defense is to go early, both of which are illegal by definition, and neither of which have been consistently called as an infraction. If one guy lags back and beats you, when you do everything legal, then you have to defend it. That’s your job. I felt like as the leader at Darlington, I probably had half a dozen or more attempts at controlling the restart, and I kept the lead the majority but not 100 percent of the time. The few times where I lost the lead it was very obvious that the car next to me had lagged back significantly and there was no call made. That forces your hand the next time you have the lead to do something to react to it. In a sense it is kind of vigilante justice. That is just how you have to play it.”
Joey Logano: “I just say we need to be consistent with the calls. If the call is that you can jump the start that is OK, just let us know. If the call is you can’t jump the restarts, let us know. Obviously there is talk about opening the box and all these other things. It is a tough position for them and I understand where NASCAR is with it. It is a ball and strike call. But baseball does that every week with every pitch. They make a ball and strike call. A lot of times someone isn’t happy about it, but if it is something blatantly obvious, you have to make the call. You have to do it. It is a tough position for them when you look at angles and when there is a race win or possibly a championship on the line, it could be a lot larger than what happened last weekend. Really all we need to know is what can and can’t we do and be consistent with that.”
Carl Edwards: “There’s still a lot of gray area there that I don’t think everyone in the garage understands exactly what is allowable and what’s not. There’s a lot of people that hang back pretty far and get runs. When you’re on the front row – let me put it simply as I think that the leader now he’s in a little bit worse of a position than he’s ever been probably on the restarts just because everyone is getting so good at hanging back or pushing the envelope. It’s tough to decide what to do as the leader.
“The restart is neat because it gives you an opportunity to get an advantage. It is tough and it’s a dynamic part of the race. It’s just where do you draw the line? Can I go 50 feet early or 100 feet early? If the leader doesn’t go, can I just go and beat him into Turn 1? I don’t know exactly what’s allowable and, yes, you don’t want to have the start happen and have no penalty thrown and have given up an advantage. Let me put it simply: If you do the restarts by the book – the way they say to go at it – you’ll get passed by about four guys every restart, so nobody really knows what to do.”
Kenseth: “I think that they need to probably make some calls, and then we’ll get everybody more honest. When the second-place guy jumps the first-place car and it’s obvious, I think they need to make that call and then it won’t happen anymore. It’s just, I think, you’ve got to make that call. I think when the third-place guy lays back too far and gets a run and passes the whole front row before they get to Turn 1, I think they need to make that call. I think you make that call one time, two times, three times – whatever it may be – and it will stop.”