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Toby's Take: We Have Opened Pandora's Box with Restarts

Following Sunday's NASCAR Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond, there is now a question as to what is a legal restart and what isn't. NASCAR needs to quickly define what is fair and foul before things get out of hand.


hero image for Toby's Take: We Have Opened Pandora's Box with Restarts

There was a murky time, many years ago when the restart rules in the NASCAR Cup Series were not very cut and dry. Sure, there were restart lines, and eventually, restart zones, as we currently see them on track in 2024. But back in the day, it was ultimately up to NASCAR's discretion on whether to call a jumping-the-start penalty or not.

As you can imagine, this scenario led to tons of controversy over the years. Sometimes, a driver would be flagged for jumping a start. Sometimes, they wouldn't. It simply didn't make any sense.

Predicting when a driver would receive a black flag for jumping the start became as difficult as knowing when a debris caution would fly back then.

Finally, in the late 2010s, with double-file restarts being added to the NASCAR Cup Series, NASCAR made the restart rule black and white. And as of Sunday night's Toyota Owners 400, the rule had been enforced that way ever since.

However, on the final restart of Sunday's race at Richmond Raceway, the once black-and-white restart zone rule, in an instant, seemingly became a judgment call again.

Denny Hamlin lined up as the race leader on an overtime restart alongside his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr.

As the two approached the GEICO restart zone, Hamlin accelerated early, surprising Truex in the process.

The leader already has a massive advantage on restarts, because they are the person who ultimately knows when their foot is going to mash the throttle pedal.

Everyone else is simply playing a guessing game, and reacting to whatever the leader does.

When the second-place car heads toward the restart zone knowing, for nearly the past decade, that the leader has had to reach the restart zone before accelerating, the leader firing off before crossing that line catches everyone with their pants down.

Hamlin understandably defended his restart following the race and said that he felt that he fired off right at the restart zone line.

“Yeah, I mean, I went right at it, for sure,” Hamlin explained. “I did that because I saw those guys rolling to me. The 22 was laying back. The 19 was rolling a couple miles an hour quicker than I was. I wasn’t going to let them have an advantage that my team earned on pit road. Certainly made sure I went to my nose and got there. But I took off right away. Still, we were side by side down the water into turn one.”

Hamlin feels he was in the right, and he's entitled to that opinion. He's not the officiating crew.

Following the race, NASCAR's Elton Sawyer "Yeah, we reviewed that. We looked at that. Obviously, the No. 11 was the control vehicle. It was awful close, but we deemed it to be a good restart."

Was it awful close? I mean, some people may feel the launch was close. Others may feel it wasn't. But what can't be argued is that the video shows the No. 11 car bursting forward before that restart zone line.

The NASCAR Rule Book doesn't say if a driver is close to accelerating inside the restart zone that it is a legal restart. The rule book states that the restart must occur inside the zone, or after the zone, not before it.

The official rule book section on the restart zone currently reads, "The initial start and all restarts shall be initiated within the restart zone on the racetrack. Double red lines on the outer wall designate the start of the restart zone. If the lead vehicle does not restart by the time it reaches the exit of the restart zone, designated by a single red line on the outer wall, the starter will initiate or restart the race."

In the replay above, you can visibly see Hamlin's No. 11 car launch before hitting the restart zone line. And in the onboard camera shot from Truex's car, you can see the launch even more clearly.

As they say, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. Hopefully, close isn't about to extend to enforcing restart violations.

Now, it's possible that the call was ultimately made because of the frantic nature of the overtime finish at a short track, where laps are clicked off in 23 seconds. That would be understandable, honestly. And in that situation, an apology that they simply whiffed on the call would more than suffice.

Because not penalizing Hamlin, in my opinion, is a better call than if NASCAR penalized him while trying to make a quick decision only to find out that Hamlin indeed didn't jump the start.

But to call Hamlin's race-winning restart a "good restart" feels like it has officially opened up a can of worms. And we're now heading down a slippery slope.

This weekend at Martinsville Speedway, if someone fires off before the restart zone, even if it's close, is it a penalty? Or is it a good restart? I guess we'll find out. But NASCAR needs to clearly define what is fair, and what is foul going forward. And if they want to keep from having countless controversial moments on late-race restarts, the best course of action is to stick to the black-and-white rule that is already in place.

They added it in there like that intentionally for a reason.

Photo Credit: Nigel Kinrade, LAT Images, Courtesy of Toyota Racing

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