Restarts could also be known as NASCAR’s version of cat and mouse.
When to go, when to lay back and when to take off when the green flag falls — all are questions a driver needs to consider before hitting the throttle.
After last Sunday’s faux pas in the Sprint Cup race at Dover International Speedway, Jimmie Johnson will approach restarts in a whole new light.
In that race, Johnson pulled two car lengths ahead of leader Juan Pablo Montoya on the final restart, which proved to be an extremely costly error. After leading 143 laps, Johnson was black-flagged for taking the point ahead of Montoya at the start/finish line.
The five-time champion was forced to serve a drive-through penalty and dropped to 17th, one circuit off the lead lap. Not only did Johnson lose the race, he lost significant championship points and potential bonus points that he would have gained had he held on for the win.
NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton said the decision to black-flag Johnson was "an easy call" and invited Johnson discuss the issue following the race — which he did. But Johnson is still uncertain as to the intricacies of the process.
Yes, he understands that drivers can jockey around in the restart zone and when the competitors come to the line the leader controls the start. What concerns Johnson is ascertaining whether the leader has spun his or her wheels, having a mechanical issue or just laying back.
“In NASCAR and auto racing there are very few moments where maybe a penalty could be drawn or a foul could be drawn like we would see in the NBA Finals or something (where) right now there is flopping that goes on,” said Johnson of players that feign being tripped or knocked down.
“I really believe that in the restart zone to the start/finish line that Juan just didn’t go and in my opinion, I think he played it right. I think he was smart in letting me get out ahead of him and let them make the call on me to keep me from having the lead and winning the race.”
Montoya found it comical that Johnson suggested he discovered “a loophole in the officiating.” Laying back on restarts is not a new phenomenon.
“Wow, I’m that good,” Montoya said with a laugh. “Man, that is a compliment. The loophole is that you have to start between the cones and the leader has got to … I think the start says you have to restart between the two cones that I did. And you are not supposed to beat the leader to the line. What is so hard about that? You know what I mean?”
Montoya, who finished second and posted his best finish since winning at Watkins Glen in 2010, wasn’t going to apologize for running well and racing within the rules.
“I read a quote about him this week, he (Johnson) said, ‘If he wouldn’t have done that the No. 42 would have beat him.’ I’m like, ‘Well I’m the leader, not you,’ ” Montoya said. “I was thinking, ‘I know you dominated the race, but we came to a pit stop and we did a better job than you guys. And as we did a better job than you guys we are the leader not you.’
“Crazy enough, if he would have backed off (and) let me go he would have probably passed me again. It would have been all good. He wanted to time it really well where he didn’t have to deal with me through Turns 1 and 2, but he mistimed it. That is it, no drama.”
Johnson acknowledges that he doesn’t “have anything against Juan” for laying back on the restart. Certainly, no competitor likes to admit he has been suckered — as Johnson was on Sunday.
“As racers we need to work any and every angle we can to win a race,” Johnson said. “That’s what we do, we race. I put a little more weight into officiating in exactly how the rule reads and the way the rule is intended to be enforced. I think we can look at enforcing it differently.
“I think everybody looking at it afterwards can see that Juan just didn’t go. What happens then when you get out of that restart zone? What happens from there to the start/finish line? I think with the data we have and the technology we have today, we have the tools to maybe make a better decision and make a better decision at that point in time.”
At times, restarts can appear more like ball-and-strike decisions than being purely black and white. Carl Edwards considers the officiating of a restart a “judgment call” to a point — but it plays into the driver in the lead’s favor.
“You’ve earned the spot, you’re the leader, so you get to mess around a little bit and try to make it hard on the other guy,” Edwards said. “I guess that’s part of being the leader. That’s our whole job is to make it as hard as we can on the other guy as long as it’s within the rules.
“To be clear, I’m not complaining about what anyone did. I’m just pointing out that there are some things that can happen and some things that I’ve seen happen and depending on which car you’re in, they can seem right or wrong.”
As long as there is an option on restarts, competitors will take advantage of that position.
“Everyone kind of plays the games at the end,” Denny Hamlin said. “If you’re not the leader, you can’t play games. You have to just do whatever the first car does and if you get beat into the first corner, then so be it, that’s why the guy is the leader and he has that right. We run restarts all the time, I’ve done it and everyone’s done it some point. I don’t think there’s one certain person that is worse than another.”
Too late to rally?
Denny Hamlin’s comeback effort took a sizeable hit last week when he crashed in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Dover after cutting a tire and finished 34th.
Hamlin, who suffered a fractured vertebra at Auto Club Speedway on March 24 and then sat out for four races, started from the pole at Dover. Despite taking a hit — with the wall and in the standings after finishing 20 laps short of the finish — Hamlin feels “pretty good, better” than he had at any previous Dover race.
“I think physically everything was good,” Hamlin said. “It didn’t affect me at all. Obviously it kind of caught me off guard when (the tire) did blow and hit the wall, so I really didn’t have time to get tight or anything. Everything was pretty good.”
Hamlin was dealt another blow on Friday when rain eliminated qualifying at Pocono Raceway. The four-time winner at the Tricky Triangle will roll off 17th on Sunday — a career-low starting position for a driver who has an average qualifying position of 5.6.
“Obviously, not qualifying will hurt us,” Hamlin said. “Also, we’re going to lose a practice in the sense of trying to get a feel for what we’ve got for power and things of that nature. I think that we would like to have practice, but everyone is in the same boat. And, 17th it’s not too big of a deal.
“This race is long enough where you can make up for it, but obviously if you qualify inside that top-five, you’ll have those optimum pit selections for the pit-timing marks — all those little things help you finish well. Obviously it will hurt us a little.”
Hamlin and the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team have proven to be exceptional at Pocono. He’s posted an average finish of 10.7, led 663 laps and completed 98.9 percent of all laps raced in 14 starts.
But with 13 races remaining before the Chase for the Sprint Cup and Hamlin facing a 74-point deficit outside of the top 20, it’s go time. Drivers outside the top 10 but inside the top 20 with the most wins are eligible for two wild-card spots into the Chase.
Yes, Hamlin has to deliver top finishes from here until the final pre-Chase race at Richmond in September. More importantly, the driver who has qualified for every Chase he’s been eligible for since 2006 must win.
“This point system is tough,” said Hamlin, who is currently 26th in the standings. “It really is. We’re in a hole. Obviously it gives us a chance to at least, based on wild cards, but there is just not enough bonus to run it well in the top five. Like I said earlier, the 30 to 35th, on performance I can’t make that up in the next 10 weeks — I’m not going to run. I have an average now of two spots better in each race on performance just because I had one bad finish for the next 13 weeks.
“That’s a crusher as far as that’s concerned. That part of it is tough. Obviously, if we do win a couple times, more than likely, we were edging our way and we were going to be in good shape had we not blown that tire (at Dover), we would have been down in the 40s to 20th with plenty of time. Now we set ourselves back to where we pretty much started again. We’ve done the math, we know what we have to do, but obviously we know that every bad finish it hurts us that much more.”
Richard Childress Racing will compete with heavy hearts this weekend after the loss of Gilford Hicks Martin Sr., father of veteran crew chief Gil Martin, on Friday.
Martin, who was reunited with Kevin Harvick last August at Bristol Motor Speedway, is expected to remain with his family this weekend in North Carolina. While the option remains open to join the No. 29 RCR team, the current plan is to crew chief by committee with car chief Chad Haney calling the shots. RCR’s competition director Dr. Eric Warren will also be on the pit box to assist.
Martin has led the No. 29 team to two wins this season, at Richmond and Charlotte. After going home to visit his father last Saturday, Martin rejoined the team at Dover on Sunday and guided Harvick to an eighth-place finish, which elevated the driver to fourth in the standings.