Generally, there are two cardinal rules when it comes to NASCAR's double-file restarts: don't change lanes before you cross the start/finish line and if you're in second, don't beat the leader to the start/finish line.
With 154 laps to go in Sunday's Food City 500, Matt Kenseth restarted second. The leader, Brad Keselowski, was next to him on the inside line. It was the first time the leader had taken the inside line all day.
Kenseth clearly beat Keselowski to the start/finish line as you can see in the video above, and the two entered turn one side-by-side before Kenseth prevailed and cleared Keselowski a few laps later. Kenseth never conceded the position to Keselowski, nor was he black-flagged by NASCAR.
Why? Because according to NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp, race officials deemed that Keselowski hadn't mashed the gas in the designated restart zone before the start/finish line, allowing the second-place driver -- Kenseth -- the right of way to accelerate on his own.
"It's such a ball/strike call that I don't know… I'd hate to be on NASCAR's side trying to decide that he beat you to the start/finish line," Keselowski said after the race about Kenseth beating him to the line. "I can tell you that there's two yellow lines on the wall and visually you can't tell that someone goes 50 feet before them or right at them. It's damn near impossible to visually tell that. Even if you had telemetry it'd be very hard to tell that. So it's very very subjective and I think when things are as subjective as that is, a no-call is the right call."
The restart zone, designed for consistency where the leader starts and restarts, is marked on the outside wall with two lines. The leader can accelerate from the caution pace anywhere within that zone. However, NASCAR deemed that Keselowski hadn't gotten to the gas and restarted the race until after passing through the zone, giving Kenseth the opportunity to beat him to the start/finish line without penalty.
Could Keselowski have been using the same restart tactics that Carl Edwards, Kenseth's Roush teammate, alleged him of late last year? Last year at Kansas, Edwards said that Keselowski was slowing down before the green flag waved -- commonly referred to as brake-checking -- in order to bait Edwards, restarting in second, to beat him to the start/finish line and draw a penalty. That happened in the Nationwide race, and Edwards brought it up in the Sprint Cup drivers' meeting the following morning. And Keselowski was subsequently warned about his restarts during the Cup race.
Keselowski wasn't tipping his hand at what happened at Bristol.
"I know I've seen moves on restarts without picking any one particular guy, where guys have jumped it by a mile — and I mean a hundred-some foot," Keselowski said. "And you watch it on TV and I know what I saw in the car. I can go back and watch it on TV and it doesn't look it. So I can't imagine that the perspective of an official up in the pit box or the press box or wherever they're at or even TV can tell, can pick that stuff out. I think they're has to be some leniency.
"Obviously if there's a guy that beats you by a full car-length to the start/finish line then something's going on, but I don't think we're seeing that. I think if you're close, NASCAR's been cool enough about it to let it go and I respect that."
[ Related: Food City 500 results ]
Keselowski got around Kenseth after a restart on lap 129 (where Kenseth led coming to the green flag), and when the caution flag flew late in the race, the two drivers found themselves side-by-side again on the front row with 17 laps to go. This time, Keselowski beat Kenseth to the line, but it was oh-so-close.
While NASCAR deemed Kenseth did nothing wrong and Keselowski had no issue with the no-call made from the control tower, the issue does stoke the embers of the perception of inconsistency from NASCAR -- and it may not be the sanctioning body's fault.
While the Fox telecast showed the replay conclusively showing that Kenseth was the first to the line, an apparent penalty, the issue was immediately dropped. There was no follow up, no attempt at an explanation, other than that it was "close." Subsequently, viewers at home were left with the impression that NASCAR missed the call entirely or chose to ignore a violation, when in fact there was a reasoning for why the race for the lead wasn't affected.
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- Matt Kenseth
- Brad Keselowski