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NASCAR Rule Changes Commentary:
Double-File Or Double Trouble at Pocono
June 5, 2009

NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France announced on Thursday night the official introduction of the double-file restarts to the Cup Series with the N'wide and Truck Series to follow at a later date. "We've heard the fans loud and clear, 'double-file restarts -- shootout style' are coming to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. This addition to the race format is good for competition and good for the fans," said France during his announcement. Friday, NASCAR's Robin Pemberton held a press conference at Pocono Raceway to explain the new double-file restarts and answer some questions.

I don't recall hearing the fans request this myself. The FOX broadcasters said it a lot during the All-Star race, but Pemberton confirmed that Pocono was already circled on NASCAR's calendar before the All-Star race. If not, we would have been witnessing some trouble as we would be flying by the seat of our pants and we wouldn't even have an airplane. You thought the guy on the creek without a paddle was in trouble. Okay, NASCAR thought this through and considered a lot of scenarios, but I'm sure they missed some.

You have to sit down and plan something this big. There are scenarios to deal with to make sure everybody ends up in the right position naturally or else there's confusion, chaos and it ends up not being fun for the competitors or the fans as they watch the competitors argue over who should be where.

Well, what do we know now?

First, Pemberton assured the media that NASCAR is certain they have thought this through and no changes will be made before the end of the 2009 season.

Second, the restart order will be the double-file lead lap cars, followed by the double-file lapped cars, the "Lucky Dog" or "Free Pass" car is next. The next two groups of cars are optional as they may not exist for every restart. Behind the "Lucky Dog" will be in double-file any cars off of the lead lap that do not pit and are between the pace car and the leader of the race. When there is one lap to go before the restart, NASCAR will wave these cars around the pace car and they will be able to come around and line up behind the "Lucky Dog" recipient now as lead lap cars. Finally, the cars that are serving penalties for various pit stop violations will restart last.

Some Explanations

There has been a group of cars that sometimes can end up restarting ahead of the leader, but behind the pace car and they are technically on the tail end of the lead lap, but are a lap behind the pace car. How do these guys get here? Simply put, they most likely just stopped for fuel and tires about five or fewer laps before the caution. Or, maybe had a flat tire and made an unscheduled pit stop during that green flag run. Anyway, they were on pit road under green flag conditions and probably very recently, so, during the caution there's no need for them to stop again. The reason they are a lap behind the leader is because they pitted under green flag conditions. However, the leaders haven't stopped recently and they pit under the caution, but this allows that group of cars to pass the leader of the race, but they cannot pass the pace car.

It was determined long ago, and I agree, that this group of cars passing the pace car at this point would be unfair. They chose to pit under green flag conditions just before the caution and their misfortune or chosen strategy put them in that situation. The caution cannot be a lucky break for the teams that stopped under green and the teams that stopped under caution.

Also, what if you are more than one lap behind the leader, but don't pit during the caution? Do you get waved around the pace car and gain a lap on the leader? If so, do you restart in the middle of the field in the group of double-file lapped cars or should you restart at the back behind the second group of lead lap double-file cars forming a second group of double-file lapped cars behind the second group of double-file lead lap cars.

The FOX crew was talking at Dover about how confusing it is to tell where the leader is and why the leader has cars in front of him. However, you just read the paragraph above this one. Did you understand it? I had to draw myself a picture to write it. It looks like we are building a NASCAR lasagna. We've got lead lap cars, lapped cars, "lucky dog", lead lap cars and lapped cars.

Well, in the spirit of selling tickets to the races and getting viewers back on the sofa on Sundays, who cares about fair? They're now going to wave them by the pace car and give them their lap back. Pemberton said that these cars will start as the fourth group of double-file cars. They will restart double-file behind the double-file lead lap cars, double-file lapped cars and the "Lucky Dog" recipient. If we must give them their lap back then my vote is behind the "Lucky Dog" who should be behind the double-file lapped cars as NASCAR has decided will be the ruling.

Pemberton did not clarify whether those that are more than one lap down gain a lap by not pitting during a caution provided all the leaders ahead of them do stop and they pass them to move between the pace car and the leader of the race. I'm guessng that NASCAR probably hasn't addressed this yet because it hasn't happened on the track in a race yet. However, at Dover, Jeff Gordon was two laps down most of the race and it seems as if NASCAR wants to rule in favor of keeping everybody on the lead lap and otherwise a team such as Jeff Gordon was at Dover will have no other option to eventually get back on the lead lap.

Problematic Scenario: Let's take the above scenario one step farther. You're about 60 percent of the way through a fuel run and barely holding onto the lead lap, nope not any more you are now a lap down. Yeah, but you can still get the "lucky…", nope, they just lapped another car now and you are stuck a lap down. Hey! There's debris, looks like tape off a car, but NASCAR throws the caution. The other car they lapped after you is the "Lucky Dog" and will get back on the lead lap. You need to stop to get tires and an adjustment or two so you don't get lapped again, but when the leader pits you will move into the tail end of the lead lap group.

Now some new race strategy that the double-file restarts will encourage. You are on the tail end of the lead lap, but really need to pit. However, getting waved around the pace car and back on the lead lap would be great. So, you come around for the lapped cars to pit the second time by the pit entrance and you stay out on the track. The leader has exited the pits and pulls up behind you and you are then in position to get waved around the pace car and put back on the lead lap. So, NASCAR waves you around the pace car, however, there is only one lap before the green so you don't have time to pit without being relapped.

What is the problem? Well, if we have a couple cars doing the same risky gamble then one of them will end up in the wall with tire problems and maybe taking others with them. The gamble would be that you are not involved in the wreck and therefore get to pit under the caution and return to the lead lap. The problem would be the increased number of cautions and the unsafe racing that would be encouraged to take advantage of the new rules.

I know in the spirit of selling tickets and increasing TV ratings we've tossed out fairness, but that's a bit much. However, it will be the teams that weigh the risk versus the reward, by doing this. At least NASCAR has decided to wave them around with one lap to go before the restart and don't allow them the time to pit without most likely being relapped. However, at a track like Pocono, Daytona, Talladega or the road courses, there may be enough time to pit and not be relapped.

Why not go even further? Perhaps we could in the spirit of selling tickets and TV ratings we could use the model of the Chase for the Championship. Why not stop the race at the two-thirds or three-quarters mark and anybody either in the top twenty or maybe within ten laps of the leader gets put back on the lead lap to increase the competition for the win. I should watch what I put in this news commentary story. I know NASCAR is reading this and that sarcastic analysis sounds like something they would do.

Conclusion

So far the reactions from the drivers and teams and broadcast crews pretty much sounds all positive. However, we haven't seen how long an eight lap caution period is at Pocono. Wait until we see them attempt to figure out how to line up the lapped cars, the "lucky dog" and the former lapped cars and the lapped cars that gained a lap, but are still a lap or more down ask, "Where do I go?".

Matt Kenseth, you got to love him for some of the things he says. Here's Matt being positively negative or would that be negatively positive, "I don't really see a huge drawback to double-file restarts. Like I say, I think there are some places that might be a little more exciting than others -- like [Daytona] it might make it more exciting. But there will definitely be more accidents, more action and probably more people mad at each other." I'd like to get Jack Roush's perspective on the double-file restarts causing more wrecks involving his race cars and see if he sees that as a huge drawback.

Anyway, we continue to chase the almighty dollar and that's what it boils down to. Unfortunately, if Matt is right and we spend more wrecking cars than we bring in selling tickets and benefitting from the higher TV ratings we've just made something simple for the majority of the time to explain into NASCAR lasagna. If I were working on the TNT broadcast for the next 6 weeks I'd be renegotiating my deal.

The old way, was lapped cars to the inside and lead lap cars to the outside. If you were on the lead lap because you didn't stop during the caution but were ahead of the leader on the track, but not ahead of the pace car you had the right to start in the outside row as a result of being technically on the lead lap despite essentially being a full lap behind the leader.

The new way, is the NASCAR lasagna way and as follows. The lead lap cars, lapped cars, "lucky dog", lead lap cars formerly a lap down that didn't pit during the caution, which may or may not include cars that were more than one lap down that were also waved by the pace car because they did not pit and passed the leader under caution. Then, finally, if anybody was penalized for rule violations during the pit stops, they restart at the back.

Most importantly, I have a challenge for the fans during the Pocono race. Pick a random car that is in the middle of the pack under caution in the middle of the race and tell me what position within three, plus or minus, they are running and whether they are on the lead lap. I stipulate middle of the pack because the leaders are at the front and that's too easy under any restart format.

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