Race Weekend Central

Thompson in Turn 5: Time for NASCAR to Re-think the Re-starts

The scheduled NASCAR powwow between the organization’s top executives, owners and drivers took place Tuesday, just a day after the excruciating conclusion to the rain-shortened Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. The official line being toted for the get-together at NASCAR’s Research and Development Center in Concord, N.C. was to afford competitors a forum to voice their concerns while providing them an opportunity for the sport to explain its policies and procedures.

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The word before the meeting was that a wide array of topics would be on the table for discussion, including slumping track attendance and TV ratings, the performance of the current car, random drug-testing policies and procedures, economic woes and at least one procedural change that could be implemented immediately and give the sport a shot in the arm without costing a penny… side-by-side restarts among lead-lap cars.

Double-file racing be a simple enough change that would require little time for drivers to adjust to – after all, it’s the only type of restart that most were familiar with as they graduated up the stock car ranks. In fact, the sanctioning body itself is very familiar with the double-file, lead cars up front format – it is the one they utilize in their lower divisions and was the very same restart procedure that was employed just a week and a half ago for the running of the All-Star Race.

Make no doubt about it, NASCAR knows that the side-by-side, door-to-door restart formula adds an extra level of excitement to the overall race experience for spectators – thus the reason for its inclusion in the devil-may-care, wreckers or checkers style of racing that the All-Star event provides. Without argument, the change in how restarts are done will not remedy the plethora of woes that the sport is experiencing, but it nonetheless would serve to add a much-needed kick to the event.

Under this new format, competitors would be lined up by their current running order, with positions 1-2 on the first row, 3-4 in row two, 5-6 in row three, etc. In comparison, today’s restart formula (except the last 20 laps) requires lead-lap cars to line up single file in the outside line while lap-down competitors form a line inside and abreast the competitors still on the lead lap. The procedure is a silly formula that is somehow supposed to foster fairness and competitiveness but accomplishes neither.

Truthfully, what the current restart procedure achieves is a safe, non-competitive sprint to turn 1 that more often than not allows the race leader, with possibly one or two competitors in tow, to distance themselves from the rest of the pack. Meanwhile, the rest of the top-10 or -20 drivers are left to bob and weave their way through an obstacle course of lap-down cars that are racing feverishly to maintain their coveted back-of-the-pack positions from equally non-competitive rivals.

Some argue that it is fair to allow the lap-down drivers a chance to race the leader and gain their lap back by staying ahead of him until another caution flag is thrown. Fair to whom? It certainly doesn’t seem to be fair to the competitor running 10th and moving to the front with a bullet, only to find himself 20th in the restart line due to 10 cars being a lap or more down.

That competitor and his team have done nothing wrong to find themselves off the lead lap. They have had flawless pit stops, employed the correct pit strategy, stayed out of trouble and kept the leaders in sight. But under the current system, there’s a great chance they’ll have their progress blocked by two drivers two laps off the pace, battling tooth and nail for their all-important 28th position while the leader sails out of sight.

Any credence that there may have been to the idea of letting lapped-down cars race the leader on restarts to gain a lap back vanished with the implementation of the Beneficiary or “Lucky Dog” rule in 2003. Drivers now have the means to gain a lap back – all they need do is outrun any other one-lap down cars to the next caution. If this change restarts them at the back of the pack, they’ll still be doing exactly that… just simply out of the way where they belong.

Meanwhile, in the interest of fairness to the leader, who after all is… well, the leader, he should be given the choice of starting on the inside or outside of the front row. It would not seem right that the driver running second when the caution period began to automatically be placed on the outside of the front row if, in fact, that is the preferred groove. Beyond that – let the best man exit turn 2 in front!

Currently, passes at the drop of the green can only be made to the right, resulting in such passes occurring rarely as drivers on the outside line of lead-lap cars simply stay close to the outside retaining wall. While the cars in contention hug the wall and protect their position, the lap-downers are free to scatter from the apron to the middle of the track, often creating a bottleneck that dashes any hopes lead-lap competitors might have had of challenging the leader(s).

Absent the non-challengers, competitors would be free to find a passing lane any where one exists as they shift up through the gears in an exciting drag race to turn 1, through turn 2 and onto the backstretch.

With that in mind, we’re left with a choice between what we currently have – the race leader most often zooming away from the pack immediately, unencumbered by traffic and in clean air – or the real possibility of two, three or more cars drag racing off into the first turn with the most deserving racer in command by the time the pack returns to the start/finish line.

That’s not a difficult choice to make.

Roush Fenway Racing driver Carl Edwards, when questioned about possible changes that should occur to enhance the sport, spoke on the issue of lead-lap cars starting double file, side-by-side, with lap-down competitors bringing up the rear. “I feel like the next evolution or the thing in restarts is to get rid of the lapped cars on the inside,” he said. “When I’m a lapped car, I don’t want to be down there. I don’t want to be in the way.”

Edwards’s comments sum up the issue for me. He doesn’t want to be there, and there really is no reason for him to be.

With more dark clouds on the horizon, this idea leaves NASCAR with an opportunity they can’t afford to miss. Dover would not be too early for what seems to be a simple change that would positively impact a sport in serious need of some energizing.

And that’s my view from turn 5.

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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