NASCAR restarts: Giving control back to the control car

NASCAR has had plenty of restart-related drama throughout the years, which has intensified over the past few weeks. Enlarging the zone was a prudent move, but there's something else that could be done...

On the surface, the policy seems simple enough. In Layman's terms, NASCAR has a designated restart zone at each race track with rules that state the leader can't go before the restart zone and loses his/her control over the field at the end of the restart zone. Go too early and face a penalty, go too late and get passed. 

What is the issue?

So why is it that something appearing to be so elementary such a complicated subject and a source of so much contention?

Drivers know that restarts are the best opportunity to pick up as many positions as possible in a short span of time and it is paramount that you can advantage of it. For those close enough to the front, clean air is the holy grail of track position.

The importance of track position and clean air is amplified during the Chase with so much on the line - the stakes can't be understated. There are numerous techniques or tricks employed by both the control car and the second-place starter; laying back, brake-checking, accelerating early.

Let's not forget the unintentional ways restarts go awry, which can lead to unfair penalties ... Spinning the tires, missing a shift, an awkward push from behind.

Pandora's Box

The reasons listed above and many other factors not listed is why I equate the idea of attempting to officiate restarts to opening Pandora's Box. It's just not going to end well when humans are involved. The ambiguity of it all results in confused race fans, angry drivers and superfluous controversy. And a lack of continuity doesn't help either.

On every single restart, NASCAR has to make a judgement call. Brad Keselowski at New Hampshire, Jeff Gordon at Chicagoland and Matt Kenseth at Richmond are all recent examples of restarts that have been put into question. Only one (Keselowski) resulted in a penalty.

I'm not going to dissect these restarts and play hindsight NASCAR official with you. That would be a gratuitous waste of time. All I know is that no one, including the officials in the Tower want to see the Chase or a race altered because of a penalty resulting from a borderline restart infraction.

There will always be gamesmanship on restarts, as there should be. What we don't want is restart drama to overshadow the on-track product.

I'll admit that I have never officiated anything more than a backyard baseball game in my life, so I won't pretend that I know more than the powers that be, but here's what I believe are prudent ideas that I believe should be considered moving forward.

Drivers praise bigger restart zones

Open up the playground, meaning that NASCAR could create a larger area for the restart to take place. They doubled the restart zone from 70ft to 140ft for Dover, which was applauded by the drivers. Restarts were a non-issue at the Monster Mile due to this prudent call but to be fair, that could also be attributed to how untouchable Kevin Harvick's hot rod was - see THIS PHOTO if you think I'm exaggerating. 

"The leader of the race has been put in a disadvantage with such a small restart area," said Jimmie Johnson in regards to the enlarged zone. "It's very easy as the second-place car to time the roll and to get up and accelerate with the leader because it's such a small area. I don't even know how long we are in the restart box, but it's like a second or two seconds, and it's pretty easy to time that and be there to get an advantage on the leader of the race. But to lengthen that box, I think is a great move."

"What it's doing is the box was so small before that, instead of a restart box, you might as well have just called it a restart line because everyone knows kind of a general area where you're going to go," explained Joey Logano.

"I felt like I was in way more control today as the leader," said Dover winner Kevin Harvick. "Before I felt like I had to do something to really jack everybody up to gain an advantage

What they did was certainly a step in the right direction but I think the zone needs to be even bigger and that the start/finish line should serve as the end of the restart zone. 

Don't drop the hammer so fast

Along with increasing the restart zone, it's my belief that everyone should be given a window to police themselves. Yes, I remember the driver plea to NASCAR: "We can't police ourselves," but let me explain.

If second-place appears to get a nose out in front of the leader too soon, he or she should have an opportunity to quickly give the position back. Keselowski wasn't given that chance at New Hampshire, even though he failed to take the lead despite the apparent violation. That's right, he gained nothing but was still penalized.

NASCAR shouldn't be so quick to hang a driver with so many variables at work on restarts. If for whatever reason the position can't be given up, officials should be considerate to that and grant leniency, unless the second-place driver blatantly jumped the restart. If that's the case, then feel free to get on with the proverbial hanging. 

Sometimes intervention of race officials is necessary, but - and I'm sure many fans share this sentiment - I don't want to see it every week.

My proposal: Altering the way the restart is set up

In the driver comments you read above, 'control' was the keyword. Keeping with that theme, how about giving even more control to the control car, aka the race leader?

My proposal would be to implement Delaware-style restarts and I doubt I'm the first to bring this up. For those unfamiliar, it's the happy medium between full-blown double-file restarts and single-file. It's a style utilized by many short tracks across the country where the leader has the first row to themselves.

This is something that hasn't been talked about enough within the NASCAR community in my opinion, despite potentially being the panacea NASCAR is looking for to end all this repetitive restart drama.

It's simple, straight-forward and there will be no more questionable violations. The only con comes from an entertainment standpoint. It's great TV when there's two drivers side-by-side on the front row, throwing it off into Turn 1 on a G-W-C for the win. It certainly is, but it's a double-edged sword - Is it exciting to watch a race or the championship decided by a subjective penalty?

This concept is something that should be considered and hopefully, the entertainment factor isn't something that precludes the discussion from happening. Give the leader complete control and watch all the restart issues melt away.

Some will argue that this style is not fair to the driver running second, but that argument is invalidated by the incontrovertible fact that the entire idea of doubling up (which I do enjoy) is unfair to the driver who earned the lead to begin with. 

That's just my two cents; feel free to take them to the wishing well or toss them in the gutter. 

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Series NASCAR Cup
Article type Commentary