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NASCAR’s Comments On Restart Penalty Make Everything Much, Much Worse

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Joshua Lipowski

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What’s Happening?

Now two days removed from the NASCAR Cup Series race at Richmond, the discussion still lingers around NASCAR’s controversial non-call on the final restart that Denny Hamlin appeared to jump. Well, both Hamlin and NASCAR executive Elton Sawyer defended the incident on Monday, and rather than smoothing things over, they’ve managed to outrage fans even further. Here’s what they said.

  • To recap the incident, the video of the final restart appears to show Denny Hamlin accelerating before the restart zone, and Hamlin goes on to win the race. Elton Sawyer came out after the race and said to the media that while the restart was “Close”, they decided that it was okay.
  • The rule states that the control car of any restart must go within the restart zone. This zone is designated by white lines on the track and logos on the retaining walls and apron.
  • Fans were outraged at the finish of this race. They felt that if NASCAR so clearly has a black-and-white rule, then why not enforce it in the biggest moment of the race?

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Elton Sawyer

NASCAR’s Senior Vice President of Competition, Elton Sawyer, joined “The Morning Drive” on Sirius XM NASCAR Radio on Monday morning to discuss the incident. Here are his full comments on why NASCAR elected to not penalize Hamlin.

There’s no doubt [Hamlin] rolled early. Again, it’s a bang-bang call, it’s at the end of the race. We’re a live sporting event. We don’t have the luxury of a timeout to go to the sideline and review it and make that calls. If this happens at lap 10 or 50 or 300, the call could have been different. If I’m a competitor, I wouldn’t be playing that game every week. Sometimes you get the call that goes into your favor, and sometimes you don’t.

Elton Sawyer

Sawyer admits that NASCAR missed the call because he says that Hamlin rolled early. He is also correct in that it is a bang-bang call because it’s not as if Hamlin rolled in the middle of turns 3 and 4, he rolled just a few yards before the restart zone. Slowing it down and focusing on just Hamlin, it’s much easier to notice than when watching and reacting to it in real time. That being said, the rule states that the leader must go within the restart zone, which, the video clearly shows Hamlin accelerating early.

Sawyer’s excuse, based on the comments, appears to be that due to the call being so late in the race, NASCAR just didn’t have the time and luxury to properly review the restart and make a definitive call in time. If it was earlier in the race, NASCAR may have been able to review that more deeply and make the call. The problem with that logic is that NASCAR has taken away wins on the last lap for violations similar to this.

The most prevalent example is the yellow-line rule at Daytona and Talladega. In 2008 at Talladega, Regan Smith was clearly forced below the yellow line by Tony Stewart, and NASCAR took the win away from Smith to give it to Tony Stewart.

Ironically enough, Denny Hamlin had almost the exact same scenario in the 2011 Budweiser Shootout at Daytona. This win was taken away from Hamlin and given to Kurt Busch.

Why was Richmond no different? There’s clearly a video where it appears that Denny Hamlin violated the rules, and NASCAR itself admits it. Yet, they swallow the whistle here while taking away checkered flags with even less time to react in the two instances shown above. Make it make sense, please.

In fairness, Sawyer did add that he would not advise drivers to play this game “every week”. So, maybe this is just a one-time missed call?

Sawyer also talked a bit about the usage of SMT data to definitively prove whether or not Hamlin accelerated. Again, no telemetry data was shown during the Fox broadcast to prove Hamlin jumped the restart.

We did look at SMT…The one thing [SMT] doesn’t have, it doesn’t draw the line on the race track to where you can say ‘Look, [Hamlin] hit the throttle here, and it was before the line.’ Let’s look back at the video to be able to sync that, and it takes time. Again, we’re at the end of the race. You make the bang-bang call, and you move on, and that’s where we landed.

Elton Sawyer

Sawyer claims that SMT data cannot show exactly where a driver hits the throttle on the race track. They need to sync it up with the video to determine exactly where the throttle was pressed. This does make some sense as the SMT data is entirely separate from the cameras used for a race broadcast.

However, we have seen SMT data used in similar arguments during controversies before. Denny Hamlin, ironically enough, publishes his own SMT data to show that Chase Elliott spun him out intentionally at Charlotte last year. However, we don’t know how much of an impact this specific data truly had on NASCAR’s decision.

Denny Hamlin

Denny Hamlin spoke out on his podcast, “Actions Detrimental” on Monday night. Co-Host Jared Allen asked Hamlin point-blank if the restart was jumped, and here is what Hamlin had to say.

I went pretty early in the zone…If they know you’re going to fire in a spot, they can actually fire before you. I concede that on TV it looks worse than what it felt like in the car. A lot of the reason of that is that when I’m restarting the race, I’m not looking at the flagman, I’m not looking at my Dash, I’m not looking at anything. All I’m looking at is my mirror and my side peripheral, so, all I’m doing is trying to time this person’s run, you know what speed is the outside car going, and then I’m looking in the mirror to see okay how close is the car behind me

Denny Hamlin

Hamlin doesn’t outright say here that he jumped the restart, but, he does explain a bit why he went when he did. He was trying to make sure that the drivers behind him could not anticipate when he was going to restart, so, that’s why he went as early as he did.

He also claims that Joey Logano in the No. 22 car and Martin Truex Jr. in the No. 19 car were both creeping forward after laying back. Laying back on a restart is technically illegal, and NASCAR has penalized drivers for it before. Hamlin goes on to explain what advantage these drivers gain by playing those games.

Every mile per hour that you start quicker, you’re that much that you’re that same mile per hour faster all the way until we lift, so I don’t want to give up the advantage of being the leader, so at that point I see the restart zone. I’m coming off of turn four, and all I’m doing is looking mirror side, mirror side. And I guarantee you can go to my in car and you’ll see my eyes just kind of bouncing between the two and I’m mostly looking to the to the right and I’m looking at the left front fender on the 19 car and at that point I just when I see him starting to creep I’m like I take off so I don’t see where I’m at in the zone and so I concede definitely that it is a few feet early.

Denny Hamlin

There we go, we have Denny Hamlin admitting he went a bit early. However, it came within the context of talking about the games that other drivers were playing on the restart. If you look at the video below, Logano clearly appears to be laying back, but, Truex is much harder to tell.

As a result, is it possible that maybe NASCAR, to some extent, thought that everyone on this restart bent the rules to some degree? By technicality, Joey Logano could have been bopped for laying back at least, although Truex Jr. is much more unclear.

In the NFL, for example, if different teams have penalties on the same play, they offset the penalties and replay the down. Essentially, they say that everyone screwed up a little bit, so, let’s try again. Maybe NASCAR could have used that logic to necessitate a no-call. The problem still stands that Hamlin went early, which is clearly in violation of the restart rules.

At the end of the day, this is a messy situation, and it’s a hole that NASCAR is digging all by itself. What’s the point of rules if you choose not to enforce them?

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Joshua Lipowski

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