Drivers anxious over restarts at Sonoma
SONOMA, Calif. -- Pocono and Michigan were just warm-ups, a prelude to the real show for the new restart rule. Now things could get crazy.
Infineon Raceway and its 10 turns may transform the wine-country Sprint Cup race into the road-course version of the good old days at Bristol.
Bumping, banging and tempers flaring.
"Pocono and Michigan were good tracks to try out the double-file restart rule," Jeff Gordon said. "But I think it's going to create some havoc here."
Count on it. Pocono and Michigan are huge tracks with lots of room. Infineon is tight turns in different directions going up and down hills.
Having all the lead-lap cars bunched together on restarts is bound to cause some issues with drivers vying for positions.
"I think it will be opening a new can of worms [at Sonoma] on those late-race restarts," Ryan Newman said. "We've always had double-file starts at the beginning of the race, but people are careful then because they want to finish that first lap.
"This definitely will make the race interesting, especially at the end of the race. It's going to be exciting."
Exciting and unpredictable, but some explanations are needed.
First, let's clarify the term of the new rule. It's a bit of a misnomer. Double-file restarts aren't new for any race. NASCAR always used double-file restarts until the last few laps, but the second line was cars a lap down.
Now all the lead-lap cars line up double file for every restart with the laps cars in the back. This takes on added significance on a road course because most of the cars still on the track are on the lead lap.
Last year at Sonoma, 31 of 37 cars still were running on the lead lap at the end. The last restart came on Lap 71 of 112 around the 1.99-mile circuit.
But what if the final restart comes on Lap 110 with 30 or more cars on the lead lap?
"We're going to be battling even harder and more intensely for each position," Gordon said. "Sometimes that leads to more mistakes and more accidents.
"I'm anxious to get through it and see how it works out. The drivers may need to rethink how we've raced in the past. We're going to need to figure out how to get through the first set of corners on each double-file restart."
The first turn at Infineon is a sweeping left up a hill. This means the leader probably will choose the inside line, the opposite of what he usually does on an oval track.
The double-file restarts will play a factor in the outcome. It's a one-groove type of track. Some cars will have advantages and some will have disadvantages. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out.” -- Marcos Ambrose
But Turn 2 is a sharp right. That's trouble. The leader needs to get ahead of the driver beside him before they enter Turn 2.
If the first few rows get to Turn 7 still double file, watch out. It's a hard right that's almost a U-turn. Expect someone to get punted there.
And the true danger zone is the hairpin turn before the drivers head back to the start/finish line. Leaders wreck there when running single file.
A driver needs the inside spot to make a pass, but having more lead-lap cars in the front almost guarantees some sheet-metal damage here.
"The double-file restarts will play a factor in the outcome," said Marcos Ambrose, one of the best road racers in Cup. "It's a one-groove type of track. Some cars will have advantages and some will have disadvantages. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out."
This will be fun to watch, folks, and there's one other little possibility fans may see for the third consecutive race -- guys running out of gas.
Sonoma often comes down to fuel mileage and making the right decision on pit strategy. If a driver is running on fumes in the final laps, fighting for spots on a double-file restart could run the tank dry.
"We'll be looking for the best balance of horsepower and fuel mileage," Kurt Busch said. "If it comes down to a final restart and the fuel mileage is critical, you'll still need all the horsepower that you can get in order to pick up as much track position as possible for the final run."
You can't save fuel if the guy next to you and the two behind you are trying to get by you on a late restart. That's true on any track, but saving fuel on a road course, with constant shifting and turning, is a lot to ask.
"It's one of the hardest things you can ever do inside a race car," Newman said.
However, passing will be easier than ever before for lead-lap cars. In the past, if a driver was 16th with 30 laps to go at Sonoma, his chances of getting to the front were nil. Now he's only eight rows back. Factor in a wreck or two in front of him and he might pull it off.
Yes, things could get crazy. All you need are a few hungry drivers and a late restart, thanks to the leaders doubling up at the front.
Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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