Double-file restarts pump new life into NASCAR

Denny Hamlin bumped Jimmie Johnson, knocking him out of the lead.

Johnson hit Kurt Busch, sending him banging into wall. Busch, angry at Johnson, swerved down the track and hit him back, nearly taking out a host of cars in the process.

Meanwhile, Hamlin and Brian Vickers, both winless this season, waged war at the front of the field, locking horns and trading paint, sending them both slipping up the track and out of the groove.

Their collision opened a sea of clean air and clear asphalt for Mark Martin, paving the way for his fourth victory of the season.

What spine-tingling, edge-of-your-seat action.

If you had shut your eyes and just listened to the play-by-play of the race, you would have thought that they were racing at Daytona or Talladega instead of Chicagoland Speedway.

And it all happened on a late restart. A double-file restart. The kind that has pumped new life into the Sprint Cup Series.

After watching the free-for-all that erupted at the end of the Chicago race, I can’t wait to see what happens when the same drivers square off under similar circumstances during the Chase for the Sprint Cup, with a championship on the line.

The potential for such action even adds intrigue to the upcoming Allstate 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, an event that holds lofty standards in the racing world but often tends to disappoint. Imagine Busch, Johnson and Martin lining up with Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch for a double-file restart at the famed Brickyard. That will make you forget all about the tire problems that plagued that race a year ago.

NASCAR has been roundly applauded for implementing double-file restarts, which line the leaders up side by side and in front of the lapped cars that used to get in their way.

The rule was expected to generate excitement and stir things up at the end of races, but it has taken time for us to see its full impact.

The excitement hit full bore at Chicago, where a series of late caution flags set up five dramatic restarts in the final 50 laps, spicing up what until then had been a ho-hum race.

Martin, who dominated the event, looked as if he was going to get his heart broken yet again when Johnson swooped past him on a restart on lap 224.

Then Hamlin rear-ended Johnson, creating havoc at the front of the field on another restart and allowing Vickers, the pole-sitter, to emerge with the lead.

As Busch and Johnson bounced off each other, Jeff Gordon, buoyed by four fresh tires, made a stirring charge through the field and looked as if he was going to steal the win.

Then, while Vickers and Hamlin went door to door, Martin zoomed back into the lead, opening the door for Gordon to follow him.

Martin held off Gordon for his fourth win of the season — a feat worth its own story — to lend a feel-good conclusion to what wound up being a thrilling finish.

It was scintillating stuff and none of it would have been possible without NASCAR’s new double-file restarts.

Several drivers have bemoaned the new rule, saying it creates unnecessary chaos and leads to wrecks, preventing some of them from getting the finishes they deserve.

But that’s the beauty of the new rule. There are victims as well as benefactors, winners as well as losers, and you never know who is going to fall into which category until the very end.

At one moment Saturday, Johnson looked as if he was going to win again. The next he gets shuffled backward and runs into Busch.

Busch looked as if he was headed for a top-five finish but thanks to the skirmish with Johnson, he wound up 17th.

Vickers looked as if he was going to steal a win but got shuffled backward and wound up seventh.

Gordon struggled most of the night and looked as if he didn’t have a chance. Then he pitted for fresh tires when everyone else stayed out and, despite restarting ninth, charged to the front.

That would have been highly unlikely under the old single-file restarts. Thanks to the new rule, the final laps at Chicago looked like the final laps at Daytona and Talladega, or Bristol and Martinsville, which is a good thing.

Like it or not, the double-file restarts are generating excitement and will continue to during the second half of the season, particularly in the 10 races of the Chase to determine the 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion.

They will continue to create havoc at the end of races, causing some contenders to lose valuable positions and points while opening the door for others to capitalize.

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Some drivers will walk away disgusted, some will be ecstatic with the outcome and their sudden good fortune. And because of it, we could see a significant shake-up in the points standings every week.

That’s the kind of drama NASCAR needs and its fans deserve.

It has been five years since the Chase has really gone down to the wire with Kurt Busch holding off Gordon, Johnson and Martin in the inaugural Chase in 2004.

The double-file restarts could ensure that that happens again this year.

If the new rule costs someone a race, or even a championship, while making someone else a surprise winner, then so be it.

That is what racing is all about — drama, excitement and suspense.

And as Saturday night’s race showed, every event now has the potential for an exciting, dramatic conclusion thanks to the new rule.

Jeff Owens is a writer for NASCAR Scene, which is published weekly, 46 weeks per year. Visit www.scenedaily.com for more information.