Elliott Sadler was black-flagged for beating race leader Brad Keselowski to the start line with precious few laps remaining in Saturday's NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Indianapolis, causing controversy and prompting questions from even the drivers who race under the rules every week.
In order to sort out the situation and gain some understanding, let's first take a look at what NASCAR says are the rules for restarts and starts (these are paraphrased explanations from NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton):
Here's the rule for RESTARTS:
• The No. 2 driver cannot beat the No. 1 driver to the line under "normal" circumstances. Abnormal circumstances would include the leader breaking a transmission or blowing a motor. If the No. 2 driver does beat the No. 1 driver to the line, he must make an attempt to give back the position.
And here's the rule for the START of the race:
• At the beginning of the race, the flagman controls the start – not the pole-sitter. When the green flag waves, the second-place car is allowed to beat the leader to the line if the leader "does not go" (like in the case of spun tires).
Now let's talk about what happened on Saturday. First, we'll examine the start of the race.
As the field came to the starting line to take the green flag, pole-sitter Kasey Kahne was caught off guard by a green flag he expected to come a few seconds later. Kyle Busch then took off when Kahne hesitated.
"This was the first time I'd ever see them throw the green that early compared to where the restart line is," Kahne said after the race. "I'm looking at the restart line and I'm like, 'OK, we just got by,' and I'm getting ready to take off – and Kyle took off and he threw the green. I wasn't ready to go yet, but he threw the green."
Because Kahne didn't "go" at the start – in NASCAR's judgment – Busch was allowed to continue without a black flag.
"The call on that was when we displayed the green flag, the leader of the race did not go," Pemberton said. "In all our judgment, and on the replays, the leader absolutely didn't go. That's why there was a no-call on that."
Kahne, though, was still upset at when the flagman started the race, which he felt was premature.
"To me, it should just be a consistency thing and the flagman should know where the fucking restart line is," Kahne said. "And if he doesn't, then go look. But whatever.
"That is definitely not consistent, I'll tell you that. I start about 55 (NASCAR races) a year, and that was the first one they started that soon. I was like, 'Holy shit, are you kidding me?'"
Now let's look at how the ruling in the Sadler case was different.
With 18 laps to go, Keselowski was the race leader and chose the inside line in front of Penske Racing teammate Sam Hornish Jr. Sadler was the No. 2 starter and had fourth-place Austin Dillon – a Richard Childress Racing teammate – behind him.
Keselowski started the race in the restart zone, but then he appeared to check up (hit his brakes or got out of the gas). At the same time, teammate Sam Hornish Jr. gave him a push which caused Keselowski to spin his tires.
Sadler had already hit the gas and contended it was too late to stop, especially since he was being pushed by Dillon. But that wasn't an excuse for Sadler to be so far ahead, Pemberton said.
"(Keselowski) went first and was in front of Elliott at the start, and then he checks up like he does every week and false-started," team owner Richard Childress said. "I mean, that's racing. These guys are doing what they have to do to win, but I hate to lose one and I hate to see Elliott and those guys lose like that, too."
NASCAR considers that sort of "gamesmanship" to be legal, Pemberton said. Officials permit drivers to use varying speeds and strategies when starting the race, and Keselowski is particularly known for using those tricks.
While NASCAR agreed Sadler technically did not "jump the restart" – which is taking off before the leader – he did beat the No. 1 starter to the line. Sadler should have given the position back, NASCAR said, and he wouldn't have been penalized.
But Sadler – who said he had his "heart ripped out of my chest" – said he had no idea what he did wrong or what he should do in the same situation if it happened again.
"I asked them, 'What would the protocol be?'" Sadler said. "... It's just like missing a shift. Do I stop and wait for him to get his shifting right? Do I stop and wait or him to get his tires? Oh yeah, and I'm getting pushed by the 3 car, who is also getting pushed by the 43.
"I don't know the protocol, and they did not give me one."
Pemberton said he was sympathetic to Sadler's situation, but the explanation was not enough.
"Their contention is they didn't jump the start and they were being pushed across the line and it was kind of out of his hands," Pemberton said. "I understand that argument, but that's not the way the rules go."