By Reid Spencer Tuesday, July 31 2012 00:00
Two days after the inaugural NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway -- and one day after Jimmie Johnson demolished the field to win his record-tying fourth Sprint Cup race there -- the hot-button topic was the black flag displayed to Elliott Sadler in Saturday's Nationwide event.
Was Sadler justly punished for arriving first at the start/finish line in the second-place car on a restart with 19 laps left, or, as some have suggested, was he screwed, blued and tattooed by a judgment call that deprived him of a possible victory and a $100,000 cash bonus under series sponsor Nationwide's lucrative Dash 4 Cash program?
Here are the facts, based on more than a dozen reviews of the video, from several different camera angles:
Unlike the start of a race where the green flag is the "go" sign, the leader controls all subsequent restarts. The leader is required to put power down and take off in a restart zone between red lines on the walls. If the leader doesn't restart in the zone, the flagman will display the green flag to restart the race.
At Indianapolis, the restart zone ends more than 200 yards before the yard of bricks that serves as the start/finish line.
In Saturday's Indy 250, Brad Keselowski, the race leader and eventual race winner, hit the accelerator in the prescribed zone. Sadler reacted by doing the same and got a shove from Austin Dillon, his teammate at Richard Childress Racing.
Sam Hornish Jr., Keselowski's teammate at Penske Racing, likewise attempted to push Keselowski, but the nose of Hornish's Dodge lifted the rear bumper of Keselowski's car slightly and caused him to spin his tires.
The push from Hornish cost Keselowski traction and broke his momentum. Sadler, with Dillon still pushing, surged ahead. By the time the cars reached the yard of bricks, Sadler was slightly more than one car-length ahead of Keselowski.
When Sadler did not cede the lead to Keselowski voluntarily, NASCAR black-flagged Sadler's No. 2 Chevrolet, forcing him to serve a pass-through penalty at 55 mph down Indy's lengthy pit road. In theory, NASCAR also could have black-flagged Dillon, who restarted fourth and also beat Keselowski to the line.
After the race, NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said Sadler was not penalized for jumping the restart but for beating Keselowski to the line.
Just to be clear, "jumping the restart" implies that the second-place car accelerates before the first-place driver decides to put the power down -- which Sadler did not do.
Beating the leader to the line is another matter. Sometimes it's excusable, as when pole-sitter Kasey Kahne "did not go" to start the race, in NASCAR's judgment, and Kyle Busch beat Kahne to the stripe by more than a car-length.
Sometimes it's not excusable, as was the case with Sadler.
There's a reason for the rules that grew out of a move to double-file restarts in 2009. As Pemberton put it, NASCAR wanted to preserve an advantage for the race leader. Hence, the leader has lane choice, the option of when to restart within the zone and the privilege of arriving first at the start/finish line.
According to Pemberton, the rules were designed "to help the driver who had the lead feel like he wasn't losing all of his advantage when a caution comes out."
Fair enough, but are there tweaks that could improve the process? Are there changes NASCAR could make to take some of the judgment out of a judgment call that's almost certain to spark controversy?
Here are some options: First, move the restart zone closer to the start/finish line. There's too much that can happen between the last red line and the flag stand, as was the case on Saturday. Drivers must have enough room to go up through the gears before they get to the first corner, but no more than that.
Second, after the leader accelerates to restart the race, let every driver get what he or she can get without changing lanes before the stripe. Lane choice and the right to start the race should be enough of an advantage.
Under that scenario, it doesn't matter if the leader spins tires or gets loose or loses momentum. If the second-place car beats the first-place car to the start/finish line with superior speed or a more accomplished restart, so be it.
That's a better alternative than putting NASCAR officials in the very difficult position of deciding whether the leader's spinning his tires or getting loose was sufficient to justify the second-place car getting to the stripe first -- and by how much.
Now let's look at enforcement. If NASCAR doesn't like the way a restart is developing, a caution flag is always an option. Simply line 'em up again.
Putting the onus on the second-place driver to officiate the restart is as unreasonable as asking LeBron James to call a foul on himself.
Sadler had two options on Saturday. He could have dragged his brake and slowed down -- the best recipe for wrecking half the field -- or he could have relinquished the lead to Keselowski voluntarily, which would have required him to call foul on himself, in essence punishing himself for someone else's mistake.
Sadler clearly believed he had done nothing wrong, and neither did a chorus of drivers who tweeted their support after the race.
"I feel for Elliott Sadler," Jimmie Johnson wrote on his Twitter account. "What was he supposed to do with another car pushing him?"
The bottom line is that NASCAR, not drivers, should officiate the race -- period. If the remedy requires a driver to give up a position, then NASCAR should impose that same remedy, telling Sadler to drop to position 2 on the track, rather than sending him on an agonizing $100,000 journey down pit road, based on a judgment call.
Demoting Sadler to second place would have given him a chance to overtake Keselowski for the win. Even a second-place finish would have earned him the Dash 4 Cash bonus as the highest-finishing eligible driver.
Instead, Sadler had to settle for a 15th-place finish, the loss of most of his points lead over Dillon and a wallet lighter by $100,000 -- a harsh punishment for something Sadler and many others didn't consider a crime.
Pemberton said NASCAR may be open to a change that would simply deprive a driver of the position gained at the restart.
"It's not something that we've done now, but it's like anything -- it's why the rule book started out as a one-pager," Pemberton told the NASCAR Wire Service. "So if there's things that need to be addressed, (through) change and bulletins and stuff like that, we're constantly looking at it."
NASCAR should take a hard look at the language in the rule book where restarts are concerned, because, based on Saturday's race at Indy, both the process and its enforcement can stand improvement.
Fortunately, NASCAR considers both questions open for discussion.
"We'll sit down, we'll talk and sift through some ideas and see if we can make things better," Pemberton said. "That's what we do all the time."
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.
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