JOLIET, IL - JULY 22: Elliott Sadler, driver of the #2 Hunt Brothers Pizza Chevrolet, gets a push on a restart from Justin Allgaier, driver of the #31 Brandt Chevrolet past Ricky Stenhouse Jr., driver of the #6 Rancher's Reserve/Dominick's/Cargill Ford during the NASCAR Nationwide Series STP 300 at Chicagoland Speedway on July 22, 2012 in Joliet, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
NASCAR won't get specific about certain situations and penalties on restarts. But wouldn't it be better to have all the rules clearly spelled out?
Like the parent who justifies everything with "Because I said so," NASCAR had no intention of getting specific about its thinking on restart rules during Sunday's pre-race drivers meeting at Indianapolis.
Sprint Cup Series race director David Hoots lectured the drivers about their "roles and responsibilities," then warned them to stop fooling around on the restarts. If they kept acting up, he said, the drivers wouldn't like the consequences.
It was NASCAR's way of saying, "Don't make me come down there!"
Such authoritative approaches might work in parenting, but this is professional sports. If the competitors – world-class race car drivers, in this case – don't understand the rules and consequences, then NASCAR needs to be more specific.
During the meeting, eventual Brickyard winner Jimmie Johnson asked officials for an explanation. But instead of providing answers, their response was essentially this: Just restart the right way, and we won't have this problem.
They refused to acknowledge Johnson's suggestion that a bad restart should result in another caution flag to try again – like a false start in the 100 meter dash – and generally treated the drivers like a bunch of misbehaving children. One big-name driver walked out of the meeting and said he felt like he was in grade school again.
Why won't officials spell out the procedures and punishments for restarts more specifically? NASCAR president Mike Helton essentially said restarts fell under the "Boys, have at it policy," and NASCAR doesn't want to get involved in policing minor details.
But that might just be a cover for a larger reason: NASCAR hates the idea of getting boxed in by its own rules. It doesn't want to be forced into making a call, so the rules are often written with an out, such as "except in rare instances" or "in NASCAR's judgment."
The problem with that is both fans and competitors view NASCAR as an inconsistent ruling body. And inconsistency damages credibility.
In the Elliott Sadler situation on Saturday, the majority of fans believed Sadler got screwed out of a win. And while NASCAR had an explanation for the penalty (the second-place car cannot beat the leader to the line), its answer to Johnson's question on Sunday was unacceptable.
When Johnson asked what he should do if he found himself in Sadler's position, Hoots first said he hoped the situation wouldn't happen again, then suggested Johnson drag the brake if he was being pushed past the leader, then backed off and said he didn't know of a specific solution.
So instead of Case Closed, the restart rules now seem wide open. This is far from the last time we'll hear about this issue, and NASCAR will continue to look fishy because the rules seem to be applied differently at different times.
Think about these scenarios:
• In the Chase, what if a driver pushes his rival past the leader on a restart in order to try and get that driver in trouble? Is there a penalty for that? Would both drivers get punished?
• Will the leader now play even more games on the restart like Brad Keselowski did, knowing it could get his competitor black-flagged? Is there ever a penalty for those tricks? To what extent is such gamesmanship legal?
• If a driver in Sadler's situation realizes he's beaten the leader to the line, how long does he have to give the position back before being penalized?
NASCAR says it doesn't want to have to police these things and prefers the drivers figure it out themselves by following simple rules. But if NASCAR doesn't like the games, then perhaps it would be better to make restarts tightly controlled and take all the strategy and trickery away from the drivers.
Officials should spell out each of the specific rules and consequences so drivers, media and fans immediately know an infraction when they see one. It's like pass interference in football: Yes, there are some judgment calls, but there are also specific rules as to what constitutes pass interference and what does not.
Without getting specific, it's like telling the competitors, "Don't try to gain an advantage...or else!" And as everyone knows, NASCAR drivers and crew chiefs will always push the limits until they find where exactly that "or else" line is located.