NASCAR: Loudon Was the Perfect Storm, On the Site of a Great Disaster
Since NASCAR's much lauded COT platform shuffled onto the scene a few years ago there have been enough feet of negative writing produced to pave Daytona.
However, the weekend's race at New Hampshire was perhaps the first real sign that NASCAR has done right, not just by the COT, but by a number of other rules.
After the thriller in Sonoma a week earlier, I had no problem telling anyone who would listen that a return to the flat banked short track of Loudon, would be a return to the monotony of a car getting clean air and running and hiding from the field, with green flag runs long enough to lap several cars and so knock them out of contention.
And for a portion of the race I was right, with a single long green flag run, including green flag pit stops, with only half the field remaining within a single one-mile circuit of the leader.
However, for a majority of the race the field remained close enough that every single lap had a pass for position, often several, while several other drivers worked over the rear bumpers of their rivals looking for an opportunity to move past.
Of course, to keep this close racing a smattering of cautions was needed, and there were, with a single big crash dishing out heavy damage to half a dozen cars.
These cautions pushed the recently implemented double file restarts to the fore once more. Their effectiveness at improving racing at Pocono and Michigan was debatable, while the chaos they were expected to spark at Sonoma never really materialised.
At New Hampshire, the double-file restart came of age.
Even with the leader picking his lane, the results of the restart were varied, sometimes the inside, sometimes the outside lane emerged in the lead, but the biggest result was that you immediately had the entire field side by side.
On such a small track, with such slight banking, it can take many laps to work up alongside another car, and I, as much as anyone, enjoy watching drivers trying to out manoeuvre and out think their opponents.
But the fact that double file restarts gave you 20 or so immediate passing opportunities cannot be ignored, and the lane mentality that emerged had all the hallmarks fans love of close restrictor plate racing, without the speed and danger that drivers (and some fans) were so critical of after the Talladega incident.
Jeff Gordon was critical of the way Kurt Busch, who seemed to spend most of the race beside Gordon, was racing him off restarts.
The sport is competitive and on a track where track position is so critical and in a relatively short race at a scheduled distance of 301 miles, you have to be expecting to be raced off every corner. Plus if Jeff had stopped electing to start from the outside lane, then Kurt wouldn't have had the chance to run him up the track.
In one petulant moan, Gordon displayed perhaps one the less obvious unknowns to the new restarts. It's not just a case of mashing the gas and beating the guy next to you to the first turn, you have to take into account the race craft.
Kurt Busch's (and the surprising appearance of Sam Hornish Jr.) at the pointy end of the field, also showed the effect of the COT, and maybe the testing ban enforced this year.
In recent years, the number of cars that could realistically win a "normal" (i.e. not restrictor plate, fuel mileage, rain shortened, or road course) race was dwindling. At points in the previous few seasons, there were less than 10 drivers on whom a bet to win wouldn't have been met with accusations that you weren't overly fond of your cash.
That number has almost doubled this season, with three, maybe four if I'm being positive, Hendrick cars, three, maybe four, Roush cars, at least two of the Gibbs cars, both Stewart Haas entries, the Dodge teams of Penske and RPM (undergoing a mini-renaissance), while individuals such as Juan Montoya, David Reutimann, Marcos Ambrose and Brian Vickers, are knocking regularly, and loudly, on the door for marks in the win column.
Joey Logano's maiden win also threw light on how the new restarts have changed the importance of the Lucky Dog rule. Essentially an artificial way of guaranteeing no-one can lap the field (after I believe a Johnny Sauter performance in the then Busch series), I have never much been a fan of it, and it frequently proves to be more than a little pointless.
With the old restarts the Lucky Dog driver would find himself at the back of a very long line, and especially on short tracks would often soon be caught by the leaders again, and in need of yet another yellow and another fortunate canine.
The double-file starts have bunched up the field, basically awarding those at the back of the pack better track position.
Now, of course, Logano needed two of the elements I mentioned above that interfere with "normal" races, before he could get to victory lane (or victory cupboard as it seemed to be). But it showed the unpredictability that makes any sport worth watching is alive and well in NASCAR, and the Lucky Dog just puts another name in the hat.
At a track that nine years ago witnessed one of the ultimate snafu moments in NASCAR history, all the rule changes put in place over recent years and months and weeks aligned perfectly and turned a potential snoozer into one of the best races of the season.
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