When is a rule not truly a rule?
That’s likely a question many drivers have when it comes to how NASCAR polices its restart rule for events from their top level Sprint Cup Series right down to regional divisions like the Whelen Modified Tour.
Following Saturday’s Whelen Modified Tour Mr. Rooter 161 at the Waterford Speedbowl, reigning series champion Doug Coby questioned the consistency of NASCAR when it comes to enforcing the rule.
The current restart rule states that the second place car is not allowed to cross the start/finish line on a restart before the race leader.
It’s been a rule that has caused controversy up and down the ranks of NASCAR over the past few years.
The issues with the rule came into play in the Sprint Cup Series event on June 2 at Dover International Speedway when it was deemed Jimmie Johnson beat Juan Pablo Montoya to the line on a restart late in the event. Johnson was penalized for jumping the start but insisted Montoya purposefully did not come up to speed properly on the restart.
NASCAR vice president of competition has been quoted saying the rule is “cut and dry.” He has also been quoted saying that the rule is not at all cut and dry but rather at times can be a judgment call situation.
Cut and dry would suggest there’s no wiggle room. Cut and dry would suggest it’s not so much a subjective judging balls and strikes type of rule but rather a set in stone policed policy. The question is, when is it a judgment call and when is it ruled by the letter of the law?
The problem with the restart rule is that on one side the sanctioning body has the technology to police it to the letter of the law, but on the other side there have been plenty of times when they’ve made it judgment calls.
And making it even murkier, there have been times when it would seem making an educated judgment call on a situation would have made sense, but NASCAR instead turned it back to saying the rule is policed by the letter of the law.
Look at numerous instances where the rule has come into play over the last two years and it’s hard to find true consistency.
In the Whelen Modified Tour season opening event on April 15, 2012, Ron Silk was declared the winner of the event despite the fact that Rowan Pennink took the checkered flag as the leader on the track.
On a green-white-checkered restart to end the event, Silk, the race leader, very clearly spun his tires on the restart and had trouble coming up to speed when the green flag was shown to the field. Pennink, leading the outside lane, went normally on the restart, beat Silk to the start-finish line on the green flag and seemingly led the final two laps.
After the race Silk was immediately declared the winner and it was deemed that Pennink broke the restart rule.
After the race, then Whelen Modified Tour director Chad Little said: “The rule is you can’t beat the leader to the start/finish line. The exception is if the leader clearly has a bad start. Blows a motor, spins his tires and goes sideways. We didn’t see it that way.”
The rule reared its head again in 2012 on the Whelen Modified Tour when it was deemed that Jimmy Blewett jumped a late restart on Ryan Preece at Riverhead (N.Y.) Raceway and Preece was the deemed the winner of the event.
Elliott Sadler was penalized in a Nationwide Series race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for jumping a restart on Brad Keselowski when it seemed Keselowski was playing games coming up to speed late in the event. But later in 2012, at Sprint Cup event at Texas Motor Speedway, Johnson and Keselowski both went unpunished for jumping two late restarts when it was clear on replays both had beaten the leader to the start/finish line.
Saturday’s event at Waterford came down to a green-white-checkered restart with Coby leading second place Preece.
On the restart, according to transponders in the cars, Preece actually beat Coby to the line by .021 of a second. Series director Jimmy Wilson, through NASCAR spokesperson Jason Cunningham, said the officials deemed that Coby got sideways on the restart and that Preece’s advantage was too miniscule to make a call.
And that opens the Pandora’s Box of the rule. Exactly where is it deemed that breaking the rule just a little is alright and when is breaking the rule a little not alright?
In April 2012 at Thompson, Silk very visibly spun his tires and didn’t go and Pennink was penalized in a situation where most thought the “clearly a bad start” by the leader situation would come into play. Saturday at Waterford Coby’s “sideways” coming to the line was hardly noticeable and yet it was brought into play in policing the policy.
“If they’re going to stay consistent with the rules, they should have told [Preece] to give [the lead] back,” Coby said.
The fact is, whether he led by inches at the line or not, Preece was most likely going to win Saturday at Waterford. Coby’s decision to restart the event in the outside lane allowed Preece to use the old “eight wheels are better than four” plan in two corners over the final two laps in giving Coby some bumps up the track.
But, despite the fact that Preece likely wins the race, leading at the line or not on the final restart, it begs the question of when will the rule be policed tightly and when will the loose interpretation of the rule come into play?
As long as NASCAR continues to seemingly change how the rule is judged from event to event there’s no way they can ever truly say the rule is “cut or dry” or consistently policed.