Restart still a great debate for Johnson, Montoya
June 07, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
The fallout from last weekend’s final restart at Dover stretched up the rainy east coast to Pocono Raceway, where unlike the radar, one thing was clear -- the two primary antagonists in the saga have very different views on why events unfolded the way they did. Johnson believes he was baited into the NASCAR equivalent of a foul-drawing flop in basketball, while Montoya said that as the leader he was entitled to control the restart of the race.
“You’ve got to restart between the two cones. That I did. And you’re not supposed to beat the leader to the line. What’s so hard about that?” asked Montoya, who restarted on the front row alongside Johnson, but was ultimately passed in the final laps by race winner Tony Stewart.
“I read a quote from (Johnson) this week. He said if he would have done that, the 42 would have beat him. Well, I’m the leader, not you. I know you dominated the race, but we came to a pit stop, and we did better than you guys. And if we did a better job than you guys, we’re the leader, not you. Crazy enough, if he would have backed off, let me go, he would have probably passed me again. It would have been all good. He wanted to time it well so he didn’t have to deal with me through turn 1 and 2. But he mistimed it. That’s it. No drama.”
Johnson was black-flagged for jumping the restart, and the ensuing pass-through penalty resulted in a 17th-place finish in a race where the five-time champion had led 143 laps. NASCAR officials said the call was an easy one, that decision no doubt reinforced by the massive gap the No. 48 car quickly opened on the rest of the field. But to Johnson, there was nothing simple about the situation -- or the rules that govern who is able to go when.
“I just need a better understanding of the rule. I think I’ve played into trying to do the right thing, trying to maintain pace car speed when the pace car pulls off. We see guys really choke up the field at that point, which they way they say the rule works, you’re not supposed to do that,” he said.
“I’m cool with whatever it is, I just want it crystal clear what we can and cannot do. I guess I find myself trying to do the right thing more often. At Phoenix earlier this year I got taken advantage of on that last restart, and then clearly again at Dover. Whatever it is, I’m fine. And if we want the leader to have full advantage, then take the limitations away, let’s really give them the opportunity to take that restart. And if not, let’s enforce it properly the other way.”
Section 9-9 of the Sprint Cup Series Rule Book states plainly that the leader “is the control car for the restart,” and that all cars “must maintain their respective track position for the restart, until they cross the start/finish line.” But that doesn’t rule out attempts at gamesmanship, accusations of which are flying on both sides. Just as Montoya argues that Johnson tried to time the restart, Johnson claims that Montoya laid back to such an extent that the No. 48 had no option but to go by -- and NASCAR had no option but to penalize the best car remaining in the race.
“I really believe that in the restart zone to the start-finish line, Juan just didn’t go. And in my opinion, I think he played it right. I think he was smart and let me get ahead of him, and let them make the call on me to keep me from having the lead and winning the race. I really don’t have anything against Juan for doing it -- as racers, we need to work any and every angle we can to win a race. That’s what we do, we race,” Johnson said.
“Essentially, Juan found a loophole. He found a loophole in the officiating and worked it to his advantage. So sure, I’m mad I didn’t win the race. I’m not necessarily mad at him. But I think we need to look at how we officiate and how we can regulate that to keep that from happening.”
Told of Johnson’s claim that he had found a loophole, the driver of the No. 42 car could only smile and shake his head. “Did I? Wow. I’m that good. Man. That’s a compliment,” Montoya said.
“If I did that, why did only Jimmie pass me in his lane, if you think about it?” he added. “Let’s say I had a bad start and he beat me by a bumper or a half a car-length. NASCAR wouldn’t have said anything. But it was Jimmie … the field. So I’m OK with it. If you pay attention coming to the cones, he didn’t even want to line up with me. He wanted to time it. And he just mistimed it. It’s all good. It’s racing.”
Jeff Gordon, who finished third last weekend, didn’t see the restart up close -- he was back in traffic, among those drivers jamming the brakes -- but watching it later on video, he can see a little responsibility on both sides.
“I think Jimmie was really right there on that edge of anticipation of getting all that he could on that restart. And I think Juan did a great job of -- I’ve been watching the NBA Finals lately, and watching the flops. And that was a good a flop as it gets,” said Gordon, Johnson’s teammate at Hendrick Motorsports.
“Listen, the leader has, to me, that ability and that position to do that. It’s his job to lead you to the green and get the best start that he can. And if he feels someone is going to take advantage of that situation or get a little bit of a run on him, he can play that card. But it’s also at the discretion of NASCAR making a judgment call. I think if the 15 car (of Clint Bowyer) kept going and passed the 42, I don’t think (NASCAR) would have called Jimmie. I think they would have thought something happened to the 42. But because the 15 checked up to not pass the 42, it just made Jimmie’s lead look so absurd.”
Bowyer restarted third, and kept his position behind Montoya approaching the start/finish line. Looking back, Johnson wonders if he should have done the same. He said he tried to give the position back to avoid a potential penalty, but that Montoya wouldn’t take it.
“I should have been like the 15 and been all over the brake pedal,” Johnson said. “You can see on the video, he’s all over the brake trying to not beat the 42 to the finish line. … My mistake was expecting the call to come my way. I can’t count on that.”
But he can count on all eyes being on the restart area Sunday at Pocono, particularly if Johnson and Montoya are once again at the front with a potential victory in the balance. If that happens, what will Montoya do?
“I’m going to beat him by 10 car-lengths,” he said, smiling.