Analysis: Education, awareness hallmarks of elite NASCAR restarters

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The first restart of NASCAR’s choose-rule era saw four of the first five cars in the running order select a launching point from Michigan International Speedway’s outside line, its statistically preferred groove. One of them — Kurt Busch — relinquished a fifth-place spot, traditionally the inside of the third row, for the eighth-place spot, the outside of the fourth row.

He promptly made his choice appear wise, gaining four spots — a positional net of +1 — while simultaneously justifying the existence of the choose rule, previously a feature of youth races on quarter-mile tracks, among others in short track racing. This invited others to attempt the same bid — Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Christopher Bell and Erik Jones would follow suit that day in dumping top-five spots for that magical eighth-place springboard.

Kurt Busch as the choose zone’s pied piper is fitting. Potentially the best restarter since the 2009 inception of the double-file format, he ranked first or second in position retention on non-preferred groove restarts in 2013-15, 2018 and 2020. His knack for scoring positions out of the non-preferred groove is a talent only he seems to carry from year to year, rules package to rules package. From 2013-16, he netted 27 positions from the lesser of the two grooves, while all other full-time drivers during that span registered net negatives. On a Lap 236 restart last season in Darlington’s Southern 500, he launched from the fifth row’s inside line — the non-preferred spot from which occupants saw a 12.5% success rate in defending position — and not only bucked the race’s pronounced statistical trend, but also gained one spot.

Busch is a mercurial soul, but thoughtful about his craft, studious of restarts. He watches videos of himself and his competitors so that he can plot his pounce on the fly.

“When you drive down into Turn 1, you have to have a plan already in place on those restarts and you have to anticipate what others are thinking and what they’re doing,” Busch told NBC Sports. “Sometimes you’re on four fresh tires and then sometimes there’s restarts where you just did fuel only or two tires. You have to absorb your car’s handling and be able to know what it’s going to give you when you land down in Turn 1.”

Watch Busch on successive restart attempts and you’ll notice he rarely does the same thing twice. His unpredictability is an asset, but it’s a spontaneity influenced by reflection. Depending on the drivers around him, their positioning and their habits — repetitious restarters tend to be poor restarters — he’ll flip the script. A defensive position might allow a chance at some offense, offensive spots might require defense and calm restarts may demand a touch of chaos.

“It’s like if you’re in football and you’re the quarterback,” Busch said. “Up at the line, changing the play call because he sees how the defense is lined up or he sees the cornerback not on top of his receiver as close as he had been.

“You find those small windows, those little openings, and that’s done off of tape review, it’s done off of experience. And it’s that feel of that next dimension that you have to apply to have a competitive edge over the next guy.”

Anyone who’s viewed Busch’s 2013 restart in Atlanta knows the depths of his capability. A clogged launch and some nifty maneuvering while working the gears created the setting for one of the most memorable restarts in NASCAR history:

He’s more than a GIF-maker, though. Each of his last two wins — Kentucky in 2019 and Las Vegas last year — required a late-race restart savvy, for which he was happy to oblige. He’s the current bar other non-preferred groove restarters are attempting to clear:

Defending a non-preferred groove position is a predominately fruitless endeavor. Occupants in that groove see an average disadvantage of 35 percentage points to their peers with preferred spots. Last year, Busch was one of two drivers to successfully defend position on more than 50% of his attempts from inside the top 14.

The other is Ryan Blaney, seemingly a natural. Since his Cup Series debut, he’s managed good restarting numbers, a rare attribute among drivers under 30 who score the bulk of their track position on long runs.

“If you can’t go forward on the restart, you better make sure that you’re at least staying where you’re at,” Blaney told NBC Sports. “You can’t just give up spots. That’s kind of the mentality I’ve always had. I’ve always tried to be good at timing restarts and runs.

“I think I’ve been doing it ever since late models, because those guys were so on it on restarts. If you weren’t paying attention, they took advantage of you. I was really young when I started in PASS (the Pro All-Stars Series, a late model series in the Southeast) and those guys had many years on them. I learned from an early age to be an aggressor on restarts, and I think it carried over to where I am now.”

Blaney’s elite restarting acumen is a foundational attribute made more valuable in the era of stage racing and competition cautions, guaranteeing at least three opportunities for a wholesale position shuffle. He views the vulnerable two-lap windows following each restart for what they are: Open invitations to seize track position.

“It’s one of the easiest places to pass people,” Blaney said. “One of the easiest is pit road, the other is restarts.”

Most drivers don’t experience the easy assimilation Blaney did. Matt DiBenedetto, for one, forced himself to study video over the last few years — his favorite subjects are Truex and Kevin Harvick — to make up for the lack of experience restarting next to stock car racing’s elites. For sure, it was a big chasm to close: He made just 15 restart attempts from inside the top 14 across 2017-18 while driving for GoFas Racing.

He’s now one of the best preferred groove restarters in the series, ranking third last year in position retention:

DiBenedetto credits knowledge accrued over time for his rapid improvement but cautions against sticking with the most pragmatic game plan.

“There’s a point where you can take in good information and use it to your advantage and be aware of certain things,” DiBenedetto told NBC Sports. “Like the basics of Michigan, you can try to drive down to the bottom but you better make sure you’re clear on exit, or if it’s Pocono, you know once you get off Turn 1, man, if you’re stuck on the bottom down the backstretch, the whole train on the outside is going to drive by you.

“That’s what’s helpful study material but you also don’t want to overanalyze certain things. You want to take those things into account but also be ready for different situations, like at the last second, there’s a hole up the middle. If I shoot there, I won’t have to let off the gas, you know, and I can keep my momentum and kind of hope that it works out.”

DiBenedetto’s education as a restarter was on display last year in Darlington, when he correctly assessed the low probability for positional gain and quickly retreated to safe mode. That his move mirrored that of Harvick, one of his admitted muses, was a fun coincidence:

His 43.21% retention rate from the non-preferred groove ranked eighth in the series last season, a sure sign of a well-rounded restarter.

“It’s a really, really tough balance,” he said. “You have to be so aggressive, but you also can’t be wadding your stuff up.”

The differences in retention rates from one driver to the next are slim, separated anecdotally by situational awareness. Drivers are consistently searching for better intel, leading to bigger gains. To wit, the best all-around restarter last year, Truex, made a spotter change specifically to improve his positional gain on 550-hp tracks. Seemingly, it’s a move akin to Stephen Curry changing shooting coaches, desiring to enhance an already accurate 3-point field goal percentage. But any improvement for Truex could assist in better finishes, if not more wins. His +0.64 positional net per preferred groove attempt was low given how other top position defenders performed last year. It’s an area for improvement that’s realistic and firmly within his control.

Control is the prevailing theme among the good restarters. Calculation amid perceived chaos is what’s winning them spots, the result of their experiences and individual efforts to improve.

There’s far more thought put to these hectic moments than meets the eye and it’s what is separating the great restarters from the rest of the herd.