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Inside NASCAR: Changes increase intensity, importance of restarts

April 13, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Recent rule changes have increased the intensity and importance of restarts

The restart that cemented Kyle Busch's reputation as an expert of the craft came under the lights of Chicagoland Speedway in the summer of 2008. This was before the implementation of multiple green-white-checkered attempts that gave challengers as many as three shots at the leader, before double-file lineups that positioned the second-placed car beside the frontrunner rather than behind him. This was a restart at its most elemental -- a single-file line of contenders, two laps remaining, and leader Jimmie Johnson standing between Busch and a victory.

As the field approached the start-finish line, Busch was right on Johnson's back bumper. The No. 48 car made itself as wide as possible, allowing only narrow avenues to pass on either side of the 1.5-mile track. Entering the first turn, Busch chose the lane up high, and drove his car so deep into the corner that the vehicle almost went sideways. Television commentators oohed and ahhed in wonder, and questioned whether the driver could make his No. 18 car stick.

Master of the craft


Kyle Busch cemented his reputation as an expert of the restart when he drove his car where most drivers wouldn't, passed Jimmie Johnson with two laps remaining and took the checkers at Chicagoland.

These days, no one is surprised when Busch does something similar, particularly given recent rules changes that have made restarts a hunting ground for the aggressive. "I think Kyle can make stuff happen, especially on the outside," veteran Jeff Burton said recently. "He's willing to go places that most of us aren't willing to go."

That was never more evident than on that night in Joliet, Ill., nearly three years ago, when the only thing Busch seemed destined for was a brush with the wall. And yet, the car stuck, and Busch built enough momentum that he sailed past Johnson for what remains perhaps the most electrifying victory of his career. "I do not believe it," Busch said over the radio afterward. This from a driver who had told his crew a few laps earlier that the race was over, that Johnson was too much. But it all changed thanks to NASCAR's great equalizer -- the restart, which thanks to rule changes has become as integral as fuel strategy or quick pit stop times.

Late restarts can be where races are won or lost. Restarts are where the second-place car can overtake the leader without really passing anyone, where a spin of the tires can end a promising run, where someone in eighth place suddenly finds himself just four cars back and capable of producing a "where did he come from?" moment. From the grandstand seat or the living room couch, it all looks so simple -- mash the accelerator and beat everyone else off the starting line. And in essence, that's still what it is. But toss in double-file lineups and green-white-checker finishes, and you have something so nuanced, so integral, that to drivers restarting has emerged as a skill set unto itself.

"They have evolved," Johnson said. "They've always been important, but it just seems like it's been an area of focus maybe over the last four or five years. I would say now that we have double-file restarts, it has been more of an importance because you can make up so much more ground on a good restart. Before, [when it was] single-file, you could pass to the right, but you had a line of cars inside of you that were lappers and you just had to be patient and wait for things to sort themselves out.

"Now, the way you line up, every spot counts. If you can get a jump on someone and get inside of them or outside of them into one on that first lap or two, working traffic in cold tires -- it's not just the acceleration, but it's also how you drive the car on cold tires and things like that. There is a skill set there that is more important today, just like pit road. Pit road has always been important, but as we continue to refine what we do, it's now down to the small pieces everywhere. Not just on track, but the restarts, pit road ? it's been a huge importance of late."

David Ragan, Trevor Bayne and Clint Bowyer pass the green flag during a restart at Daytona in February. Bayne went on to win the Daytona 500 as recent rule changes have greatly expanded the pool of contenders in end-of-race situations.

From cautious to chaotic

They can be crazy, chaotic moments capable of providing an event with its signature image. The power of the restart was on display in last year's Daytona 500, when thanks to the double-file rule a 10th-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. got to line up on the fifth row for the final green-white-checkered attempt, and barreled through to nearly steal the event from winner Jamie McMurray. It was evident again a few months later at tiny Martinsville Speedway, where Denny Hamlin was ninth on what proved the penultimate restart, worked his way up to fourth by the final one, and won after leader Matt Kenseth drove too deep into a corner.

"Obviously, it's just way more intense than it ever has been, and every year it gets more intense," veteran Bobby Labonte said. "Every year it gets more of everything, it seems like. You just adapt to it as you go, is the biggest thing. You make it where you kind of go with it. You ... just adapt to it more than anything else."

On the subject of restarts, there's been plenty to adapt to. Perhaps no single element of NASCAR racing has been altered as much by rule changes in recent years as the restart, which has evolved from a last chance -- or, as was most often the case, a no-chance -- opportunity to squeeze past the leader into an absolute free-for-all, where on big tracks anyone in the top 10 feels like they have a real chance to win. The rules of restarts past seem almost gentlemanly: lap-down cars on the inside until the final 10 (later 20) laps, when the vehicles strung out in single fine. Races routinely ended under caution. They were all procedures that aided the leader, who benefitted by having slower cars around him, all the contenders behind him, and any yellow flag in the final laps.

"Before, you really wouldn't worry about the guy next to you being all that good -- I mean, unless it's a guy looking for his lap back. ... Now, it's like, the pressure is on."

--KYLE BUSCH

Gradually, though, that situation began to change, partly because fans demanded it. NASCAR first adopted a "green-white-checker" rule -- a post-caution, two-lap attempt to end a race under green -- for its Truck Series in 1995. In early 2004, a controversial finish under yellow in a Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway, site of Sunday's Aaron's 499, led angry fans of runner-up Earnhardt Jr. to pelt the car of winning driver Jeff Gordon with beer cans. A few months later, NASCAR brought the green-white-checker practice to its national circuits, with the field making one attempt to finish the event under green.

That rule was altered in 2010, when NASCAR allowed up to three attempts to finish a race under a green-white-checker format, a move stemming in part from fan unrest over a yellow-flag finish to the season-opening exhibition event at Daytona. And then, in mid-2009, came the real game-changer: lead-lap cars would line up for restarts in double file, placing the fastest cars all up front, and relegating to the rear the slower, lap-down vehicles that had restarted on the inside and often blocked the way of those challenging for the win.

Suddenly the leader's two best friends, late cautions and lap-down cars, had been removed from the equation. Drivers at the front went from welcoming late yellows to fearing them. Those first few races under the new double-file rule were hairy events, with drivers jamming themselves three-wide into even the narrowest of corners, and wrecks caused by one car spinning tires or another getting hit from behind. Under the old rules restarts often unfolded rather slowly, with the leader laying back trying to stem the momentum of the drivers behind him, the whole thing unspooling in a gradual fashion. Under the new rules, cars came out as if fired from shotgun barrels -- at full speed and all over the place.

"The difference now is, all the cars that you're around pretty much all go," Kevin Harvick said. "You're kind of at the same speed as everybody around you, to a certain extent. Everybody who's running up front has probably been running up front. You're not just pinned in one lane because you know you have to clear the guys at the bottom of you. A lot of times at the front, you'd clear them and then you'd break away. Now, it seems like you're around cars longer, because they're up to speed kind of like you are."

Although the leader still has the advantage of clean air, his choice of lane on the race track, and in restrictor-plate events, someone pushing him from behind -- Trevor Bayne, this year's Daytona 500 champion, weathered a furious final restart to win that event -- the recent rule changes have greatly expanded the pool of contenders in end-of-race situations. Under the old single-file restart rules, Hamlin would have had eight cars in front of him on that penultimate restart at Martinsville last year, likely too many to get past with so few laps remaining on such a short track. Instead, he restarted on the fifth row. The restart rules alone can mean the difference between a chance at victory and a good points day.

"Before, you really wouldn't worry about the guy next to you being all that good -- I mean, unless it's a guy looking for his lap back," Busch said. "It's just a lap-down car that's just going to fade away anyway. Now, it's like, the pressure is on now. You're racing against the guys you're going to be racing against. You know you're going to go off into the next corner and it's a battle for the lead. You're not getting separated from the cars you're racing. So it's a different game. I kind of like it, because now all of us are kind of up front and we're all together. So if you're sixth, seventh, eighth, you can be leading off Turn 2 if you want to be. If you're that anxious or you're that aggressive, you can do that. Before, you would maybe come out fourth or fifth."

Of course, it's not quite that easy. Making up ground on restarts requires quick decision-making, deft car control, and in some cases a willingness to put the vehicle in places that may make fans and broadcasters hold their breath. But it also takes strategy, the occasional gamesmanship, and equal amounts of practice and good fortune.

Expecting the unexpected

Time and time again they had their chances to get past Kyle Busch on restarts, and time and time again they failed. First it was a Camping World Truck Series race at Phoenix, where Clint Bowyer had six restarts in the final 50 laps to try and muscle past a No. 18 truck guarding the bottom of the track, and never could. "I was screwing up big-time on the restarts," said Bowyer, less accustomed to the shifting patterns and horsepower in the trucks. Then it was a Cup event at Bristol, where Carl Edwards and Johnson had four restarts in the last 70 laps to try and get by the No. 18 car, but ultimately settled for second and third.

He may trail Harvick this season in race wins and be behind Edwards in the points, but Busch is generally regarded as NASCAR's king of the restart. "Kyle, I think, is the best at it," Jeff Burton said. So much goes into a good restart -- not spinning tires, getting up through the gears smoothly, being aware of the other cars around you and reacting to what they do. But part of it is also a willingness to stick the nose of the vehicle in places others may not be so inclined to go. Restarts have become NASCAR's bare-knuckled brawls, and the advantage goes to the aggressive.

"Really, it's all circumstantial. You just have to be quick-reacting. You have to expect the unexpected. You have to be able to make quick decisions."

--KYLE BUSCH

"If you had to put it in the driver's hands [as to] which driver is going to come out on top more often," Jeff Gordon said, "it's just one that's super aggressive, that's willing to take the risk of putting the car at jeopardy, of putting themselves in an awkward position that could get them in trouble -- but could also win them the race."

Sounds like Rowdy. At the outset, though, Busch's restarts begin just like everyone else's. At the one-to-go signal, the leader chooses which lane he wants to be in, a decision which hinges on the type of track the drivers are competing. On layouts where drivers want momentum down the backstretch -- think 1.5-mile intermediates, or even high-banked Bristol -- the leader chooses the outside. On smaller, tighter ovals like Martinsville or Phoenix, the leader takes the bottom. At restrictor-plate venues, the driver in front chooses the lane with the best potential pusher behind him, whether that's a teammate or someone else he's worked with in the past.

Restarting in the pack, though, everything changes. "Whether you're in the second row, anywhere back in the back, whenever you're around [other cars], now you think about, OK, who are you racing with?" Busch asked. "Are you with Jimmie, are you with Carl, are you with David Gilliland, who are you around? When you come to the restart, you're thinking about, what are you going to do? Are you going to make it three-wide to the top if you're back in the pack? Are you going to stay in line and try to get to the bottom as quick as you can? If you're on the bottom, do you need to get to the top? What is going to happen? Really, it's all circumstantial. You just have to be quick-reacting. You have to expect the unexpected. You have to be able to make quick decisions."

Good restarts are often a matter of routine. On the lap before the restart, drivers clean debris off their tires. They usually restart in second gear, and trying to go too fast too soon can result in spinning tires and a rapid drop backward. Missing a shift can have the same effect. Drivers try to come up through the gears smoothly, hitting shift points at certain RPM as told to them by the crew. Waiting to shift too late can mean hitting the rev limiter, a chip that restricts an engine's maximum rotational speed and is designed to prevent damage. "If you get into the rev chip, it kills your momentum. It stalls you," Busch said. "So guys will inch up on you and go by you. It's making sure you hit your shift points right."

All the while drivers keep their heads on a swivel, looking out for others may have spun tires or aren't getting up to speed quickly, to prevent ramming another car. Meanwhile, back at the front, there's a game of cat-and-mouse going on as the field approaches the line. Sometimes the second-place car will drop back a little so he can try and gain momentum on the leader without passing before the restart. When the leader notices this, he may spend as much time playing defense as he does dictating the restart of the race.

"If you're the leader, you should be the one restarting the race. Sometimes its not that way," Busch said. "Phoenix is a good analogy, the truck race with Clint Bowyer. He was actually restarting the race. He always wanted to stay a half a car length behind me, and then he would start moving on me before we got to the line, so then he had momentum before I went. So when he started moving, I started moving. And when he would pick up more, I would pick up more. Essentially, we're restarting before the restart line, but because he's going, I'm going off of him. He's the one who's pushing me to go early. So the restart line sometimes is not the restart line. It's funny. I've been waiting to get in trouble for it because of [the other driver]."

There are all kinds of tricks and strategies drivers use on restarts to try and gain an advantage. Although the old practice of "laying back" has been minimized somewhat because of double-file lineups, drivers will still try it from time to time on restrictor-plate tracks, where they might want a teammate or potential drafting partner in the other lane to catch up with them. Then they'll hook up, and try to drive past the cars that just passed them. Although drivers can't pass legally before the start/finish line, sometime a second-place driver may take the risk of creeping up on the leader before the restart, maintaining a just-fast-enough pace that will draw the two cars even as they cross beneath the green flag.

"You're constantly reacting to what's going on around you, and at the same time trying to make things happen yourself," said Martin Truex Jr. "Obviously, you go with the rules. You can't pass 'til after the start/finish line. Really the strategy is just to get the best start you possibly can without passing before the start/finish line. In a perfect world, you would lay back a little and get a run on the guy. As you were coming to the start/finish line, you'd get to him, be able to pull out and pass him. NASCAR, they kind of frown upon lying back on restarts. You'll hear guys get warned about it sometimes. Really, the reaction is just trying to get a good, clean start and not get beat."

Courage and circumstance

Sometimes, even the king of the restarts gets beat. That very thing happened in a Truck Series race earlier this month at Martinsville, where with four laps remaining Busch shot out and went to the bottom, just like he's supposed to do. Johnny Sauter, who started to Busch's outside, got a strong run up top and was soon able to fall right in behind. Two laps later Sauter applied just enough pressure to Busch's left-rear bumper to knock the No. 18 out of the low groove and sneak past for the victory.

His secret? The old short-track practice of weaving under caution to keep heat in the tires, which helped Sauter's car stick up top on the restart and gave him a chance to win.

Sauter takes the checkers ahead of Busch at Martinsville. (Getty Images)

Busch slayer


Johnny Sauter became the first Truck Series regular to win this season after bumping Kyle Busch out of the way at Martinsville.

"I learned my lesson early when I was leading -- I didn't clean my tires good enough," he said then. "Everybody goes, 'Why do you guys swerve, to make sure the steering is hooked up?' It's to keep heat in the tires. I was having such a good time out there up front, I didn't clean my tires good enough. I learned early on, if you didn't clean your tires, you didn't have a prayer. So constantly, every caution from then on, I just kept weaving, weaving, weaving. I was looking in the mirror, and a lot of guys weren't doing it as much. I think that's what enabled me to keep adhesion on the outside groove."

There are so many moving parts that go into a restart, so many factors both human and mechanical wedged into such a short span of time, that sometimes circumstances can dictate the outcome regardless of the ability of the drivers involved. Sometimes, as was the case with Sauter at Martinsville, warm tires can be the difference. Sometime it comes down to a car just being better or worse on a short run, as evidenced in this year's Cup race at Fontana, where Busch led 151 laps but finished third behind Harvick and Johnson because a pair of late cautions turned the event into a sprint at the end.

Johnson said he's worked specifically on being better on short runs, important in being strong on restarts. "One thing I've had to work on is making sure my cars are comfortable enough on cold tires because I'm one that's been stronger over the long haul," he said. "In order to have a car fast at the end of a run, I need to be really loose at the start of a run. We need to adjust as the race wears on and race becomes shorter in distance. We've had to prepare for that, prepare for the short run to be more competitive."

And then there's the track itself. Just as facilities have different lengths and degrees of banking, they also have individual characteristics when it comes restarts, which dictate where a driver wants to be when he crosses under the green flag. So much of what goes into a restart -- strategy, positioning, the individual abilities of the drivers themselves ? can vary wildly from place to place.

"Some places you go to, you're going to have guys who get going good and have been going good on restarts all day or on a particular weekend," Harvick said. "Then some weekends you can't get going, and you go into more of a defensive mode just trying to protect the position that you're in, because you know your car won't go for a few laps. It just depends on really the circumstances of the track, and where your car is on that particular weekend."

The leader has the benefit of picking the preferred line -- the top in most cases, occasionally the bottom -- but he's the only one with that luxury. Everyone else in the pack begins to jockey for position as soon as they cross the start/finish line, aiming for the line that works best for getting around the race track, or the line that works best for their particular car. But they're at the mercy of traffic, and not always able to get where they want to be. Sometime, they can be pinned in the wrong line for some time, particularly during a run of multiple cautions.

"The problem comes when you're back in the pack," Truex said. "Let's say your car is only good on the outside, and you have four or five restarts in a row, [and] you get stuck on the bottom and lose spots. It's difficult to make those up."

Like being in the slow lane on an interstate highway, getting stuck can force a driver into a defensive mindset, where the race becomes all about getting in the right line. At a place like Bristol, for example, drivers all want to be on the high side, to build the momentum through the high banks and down the backstretch. "If you're on the bottom," Harvick said, "you're trying to think of a defensive mode to come up as far as how you're going to get in a preferred groove or how you're going to find a hole as quick as you can."

But not too quickly -- changing lanes before the line during the Daytona 500's penultimate restart resulted in a penalty for David Ragan, which significantly impacted NASCAR's biggest race. It's just another reason why restarts have become so chaotic in the era of double-file lineups and multiple green-white-checkered attempts, two changes demanded by fans that have helped turn every new green flag into a hold-your-breath moment. No wonder so many spectators stand up when drivers approach the start/finish line each time. It's an anticipation of action, to be sure, but also a fitting sign of respect for competitors who are embroiled in some of the most intense action to be found on the track.

"It's real aggressive. Restarts are really aggressive," Burton said. "The racing is real intense. It's harder. It's a lot harder. I actually was watching a race from [Fontana] in the spring, and man, it was five-wide, six-wide. It was crazy. I think it's good for the race fans. It's made our job a lot harder, but that's OK. It's ultra-competitive."