From an operational standpoint, NASCAR has transitioned seamlessly to double-file restarts.

From a competition standpoint, the new format is the best thing that has happened to Sprint Cup racing since the introduction of the Chase in 2004.

NASCAR likes to call the new restart system "shootout style," a manufactured term that differentiates double-file restarts among lead-lap cars from the traditional double-file restarts with leaders in the outside lane and lapped cars on the inside.

Based on what happened in Sunday's Lenox Industrial Tools 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, however, there may be more truth than hype to the shootout nomenclature. The intensity of consecutive restarts beside Kurt Busch was enough to rile even the usually unflappable Jeff Gordon.

From an analytical standpoint, restarting beside a competitor who is driving a relatively equal car is a much tougher assignment than simply clearing a lapped car on a restart. Gordon and Busch restarted side-by-side seven times during the race, and each time, fans got their money's worth.

Gordon typically chose the outside lane, and Busch battled fiercely for the lead on the inside. After Busch forced Gordon wide into the first corner on a restart on lap 159, Gordon asked his spotter to convey a message to Busch's team -- to the effect that, if it happened again, Busch wasn't going to get through the turn.

"My car -- I felt like I was on ice out there," said Gordon, who finished second when rain made a winner of rookie Joey Logano. "I took the outside lane. I could get a good start, but it's funny that Kurt was saying he wasn't very good on the restarts, because I felt like he's a lot better than I was.

"I couldn't even run in the bottom lane and he could get down there but he couldn't quite clear me. And the one time I don't know if he just slipped or what, but he pushed me pretty wide, and it almost got a little ugly."

Busch, who finished third, admitted he pushed too hard, but with rain on the way, the stakes went up dramatically.

"It's a tough balance, and this track really challenged the double-file restarts," Busch said. "And it was after (lap) 150 (the halfway point), the race would have been complete, I actually had raindrops on my windshield, and so I pushed the 'go' button, overstepped the line, rubbed Jeff a little bit and knew the boundary line that I crossed."

The value of the new restart format isn't confined to side-by-side racing. It also forces drivers and crew chiefs to make strategic choices. With track position of paramount importance, teams must account for restarts when setting up their cars.

"The track at Loudon has always been slick on restarts," Busch said. "And with double-file restarts, you have to keep in the back of your mind -- even in Saturday's practice -- you have to have a car good on a long run, but now you're going to have all these restarts, you might want to focus a little bit on short runs, as well," Busch said.

Drivers also are weighing the value of starting on the inside or outside, which varies from track to track. Consecutive restarts on the inside lane cost Dale Earnhardt Jr. dearly at Loudon.

"I like the double-file restarts, but, man, if you are on the inside, you are going to lose a couple of spots every time," said Earnhardt, who finished 13th after running consistently in the top ten for most of the race. "We were on the inside the last three, and we lost the opportunity to run in the top five, got shuffled back to just inside the top ten."

The pressure to protect track position multiplies exponentially under the new system, sometimes with disastrous results. On a restart on lap 175, Earnhardt restarted third, spun his tires and lost momentum. Martin Truex Jr. checked up behind him. Kyle Busch, behind Truex, did not, and contact between the cars of Busch and Truex ignited a massive wreck in turn one.

Jeff Burton was an innocent victim of the melee, finishing 31st and dropping to 16th in the Cup standings. Nevertheless, from a spectator's standpoint, Burton acknowledges the value of the new format.

"I don't think the fans want to see wrecks, but they want to see more aggressive racing, so that is the product of that," Burton said. "You can't change something without there being some kind of negative consequences, and this (the wreck) is an example.

"We drive the cars, and ultimately the responsibility lays on us. But this does put another wrinkle in there for us."

by Reid Spencer/Sporting News


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