Four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon got schooled last Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on the refined art of restarts.
It had been eight months since Gordon’s last race, and the importance and subtlety of this one skill showed just how rusty he was.
“Last week was just a teaser for restarts. This week they’ll be five or six wide going into Turn 1 here,” Gordon joked Friday at Pocono Raceway, site of Sunday’s Pennsylvania 400.
“I can’t wait.”
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When NASCAR moved toward double-file restarts, the nuanced moves off a caution became all the more important. Think of it as the equivalent of a faceoff in hockey or lacrosse: A specialized skill that helps optimize control of the event.
NASCAR lengthened the restart zone, which aids the race leader. The challenge, as the race comes back to full speed, is how best to position the car to make a move on drivers in front of you without crashing in Turn 1.
Each Sprint Cup track has unique characteristics than affect restarts. Pocono can be particularly tricky, several drivers said Friday.
“This is one of those race tracks where you have a long straightaway before you get down to Turn 1 and there are really only about two lanes that are really worth anything when you get there,” said driver Joey Logano. “Going into Turn 1, you’ve got to find a hole, and it becomes very challenging.”
Best chance to pass
Logano and Kyle Busch are generally considered the elite Sprint Cup drivers when it comes to restarts. The reason restarts have grown in importance is it’s often the best opportunity to pass. And as Busch noted Friday, while recent aerodynamics have made the cars easier to drive, that same package has made it harder to pass under normal conditions.
“It becomes so challenging to pass afterward,” Logano said of restarts. “When you talk about (Pocono) or Indy or most tracks we go to, it’s very hard to pass these days. The opportunity is on the restart.
“So you push hard and it’s that way across the board. Every driver is doing that and it’s just a matter of doing it in the right way.”
Gordon said the misconception among fans is that restarts are about getting the cars up to fourth gear. Nope. It’s about figuring out what you’ll do after the car is at full speed and that first turn makes for mayhem.
“It’s about being on the outside or the inside,” Gordon described. “I feel like I (go through the gears) as well as anybody. But it’s about the turn and how you are making moves and picking lines to gain position.”
Brad Keselowski, who has won four Sprint Cup races this season, says he’s probably top-10 on restarts, but not in Logano’s or Busch’s class.
“You always have one line that is preferred and one line that is not. And then you have that restart zone. That has created this offense-versus-defense mode that everyone goes into whether they are in the preferred versus not-preferred lane,” Keselowski described.
“Very different tactics than what we’ve previously seen in the sport. It’s evolved over time to where drivers who have a lot of experience are pretty darn good at it.”
Logano said part of the trick to being expert at restarts is putting in the time to really scout other drivers’ tendencies.
“A lot of time it’s the aggressor who wins out on that thing, but sometimes the aggressor is the one who maybe puts himself in the wrong spot,” Logano said. “It’s a calculated decision on each restart on knowing who you’re racing, the tendencies they’ve had in the past, (and) what track you’re at.”
It’s a subtle skill and a huge advantage, as Busch described.
“Restarts are huge here for sure,” Busch said. “When everyone fans out, it definitely manipulates the runs of the different grooves and the different lines.
“It’s a bigger challenge here than maybe some other tracks, but you file down into two lanes if you’re lucky through Turn 1. … It’s tricky here for sure with the restarts and they play a big role to what this race ends up being.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; @rick_bonnell