At Richmond International Raceway, the finish in the Federated Auto Parts 400 came down to “balls and strikes” on Saturday night.
As questionable as the timing of Clint Bowyer’s spin on Lap 393 — which NASCAR announced Sunday it was investigating and penalties for on Monday — so was the final restart with three laps remaining in the race.
Technically, race leader Paul Menard should have crossed the start-finish line first – controlling the restart. But eventual race winner Carl Edwards was nearly a full car length ahead at the line.
When NASCAR vice president Robin Pemberton addressed the teams in the pre-race drivers meeting, he promised competitors that while many “may have some questions on restarts tonight” the sanctioning body reserved the right make “a judgment call on. OK?”
“There are balls and there are strikes. Sometimes you don’t like the call; sometimes we don’t even like the call we have to make,” Pemberton said. “I just want to remind everybody: Do not put us in that position where we have to make the call. Because more times than not, it isn’t going to be in your favor – and we don’t want to do that, OK?”
Ironically, in the same meeting, Edwards had a question regarding another element of restarts. He broached the possibility of future use of video replay to review the driver’s positions for the "lucky dog" or beneficiary position where the first car one lap down returns to the lead lap.
Although NASCAR insisted it would continue to use scoring loops to line up the cars, a review of the final restart would have clearly shown Edwards’ car beating Menard to the line. At Dover earlier this year, Jimmie Johnson was black-flagged for a similar offense and was assessed a drive-through penalty that cost him a potential win.
On Saturday night, however, Menard took two tires on his last pit stop to gain track position. His No. 27 Menard’s Chevy was first off pit road. But coming to the line, Edwards claimed Menard was at a “big disadvantage with grip” after electing to take two tires.
“He took off,” Edwards said. “I waited until he went to go. As we were going, his car actually touched my door. I think it surprised him a little bit or something. He turned a little bit. I heard his engine speed up. He spun the tires.
“At that point, I mean, I really have a choice to either lift off the throttle and wait for him to try to gather it up — I’ve never seen a guy able to gather up too quickly when they spin that bad — or go and hope NASCAR understands that he spun his tires. In this case they did. They understand he came up and hit me and spun his tires.”
While Menard acknowledged following the race that he “just couldn’t take off very good”, his crew chief Slugger Labbe tweeted,
I guess it is ok for 2nd place to beat 1st place to the line by a car length after getting door slammed. #ballsandstrikes. That is all IMO
Edwards admitted that restarting second under those circumstances put him in a “tough position.”
“If I had lifted and waited, I think the whole field would have run over us,” Edwards said. “You just can’t. If he had four tires, it probably would have been different.”
Major League Baseball will expand instant replay next season. Coaches in the National Football League are also allowed to challenge calls. And while other racing series routinely wave off restarts after the green flag, that hasn’t been the case for NASCAR.
“I know in the heat of the race, it would be really tough for them to do that,” Edwards said of the use of instant replay. “What’s happened to us, twice this year, towards the end of the race, we’ve been in the lucky-dog position and the caution has come out, and they’ve reverted back to the scoring loop – and in the scoring loop, we weren’t in the lucky-dog position, but when the caution came out, we were.
“Hopefully, it will be something they use because in that rare instance that you don’t get your lap back and were in the position to when the caution came out. That’s pretty hard to swallow.”
After Edwards lost the position at Richmond in the spring and last weekend at Atlanta, he spoke to Pemberton and NASCAR president Mike Helton about the possibility of video review moving forward.
“It made my hair stand up what kind of implications that could have in the Chase,” Edwards said. “They both said they would consider it. At the end of the day, we’re already evolving towards that. That we have to loops already, that’s good. I just think that things are so close on these restarts right now, it would be nice if they could do that.”
Pemberton says that while “in some cases it would be easy to do, in other cases it would be nearly impossible”.
“The fact of the matter is, it’s a lot about not racing back and freezing the field,” Pemberton said. “I understand what Carl said but these are the rules we operate under. Until we can get a situation where we can improve it 100 percent across the board, we can’t be hit or miss on it.”
On Saturday night, however, Edwards can be thankful that restarts — like balls and strikes — remained in the realm of judgment calls.