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Smoke's finally smiling, but Jimmie's angry...and Jeff says NASCAR needs to step up its safety programs

Smoke's finally smiling, but Jimmie's angry...and Jeff says NASCAR needs to step up its safety programs

Tony Stewart at the Dover finish, pulling away from Juan Pablo Montoya, as Jimmie Johnson fumes over that NASCAR blackflag (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   So Smoke finally has something to talk about, after snapping that winless skid with Sunday's Dover 400 victory..albeit at Jimmie Johnson's expense and with the help of a controversial NASCAR black flag with less than 20 miles to go.
   -- Juan Pablo Montoya once again fails to snare an oval track NASCAR win, more than six years now on the stock car tour for the Formula 1 star.
   -- Jeff Gordon adds his voice to the chorus of drivers demanding NASCAR executives order the sport's two top track owner promoters -- Bruton Smith and the Frances -- to install soft walls all around their tracks: to better protect drivers.
   -- Brad Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe take another NASCAR hit, failing post-race height inspection, drawing a $25,000 fine and losing six Sprint Cup points (approximately the difference in six finishing positions).

   The most important story coming out of the Dover weekend was easily the safety questions raised by Gordon.
   Gordon, who has been mired in something of a slump too (last win, Homestead, November 2012), rallied to finish third Sunday.
    But Gordon made more news at Dover for his complaints about NASCAR not being aggressive enough in ordering track owners to make their tracks safer.

 Jeff Gordon: NASCAR executives need to step up their safety game (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    When he arrived at Dover, he was very sore: "I had a rough week. I didn't quite understand the pain that night (after crashing in the Charlotte 600) until I went back and watched the video --and realized the angle that I hit, as well as that there was no Safer barrier.
    "I had no idea there was no Safer barrier at that dogleg on the front stretch (at Charlotte). That blew my mind. There's one at the start-finish line, and it stops.  There's one at turn one, that goes around to turn two.
    "That shocked me.
    "I certainly said something (to NASCAR), and when I get the opportunity I'll talk to others as well about it."
    However Gordon raised safety concerns about other tracks too, including Dover's turn two. "They haven't fixed that one," he said.
    And it is unclear what the France family is doing at its California track, where there are holes in the soft walls safety barrier system, which Denny Hamlin discovered when he crashed into one of those holes in March and suffered major injury.
    So Gordon said he wasn't optimistic that NASCAR executives were on top of the safety situation. "I'm not anticipating any change," he said.
    Gordon said "there's only one reason" for NASCAR's reluctance to make these safety changes: "Cost. Cost. That's it.
    "I understand their theory --- they go through their testing and see where multiple impacts have happened, and highest impacts (before deciding where to order tracks to install soft walls).
    "But I've got to tell you, that (Charlotte crash) was one of the hardest hits I've had in a race car. And the type of impact -- I got hit from the left, so it shifted everything to the left, and then I hit the wall on the right, so I went from left to right."
    Gordon's frustration with NASCAR's safety decisions lately comes through clearly: "Me sitting down and having a conversation with them (NASCAR and track owners) isn't necessarily going to change that, but it doesn't mean it's going to stop me from doing it."

  Jimmie Johnson at Dover: did NASCAR make the right call in blackflagging him while battling for the lead and the win with less than 20 miles to go? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Tony Stewart's rally to win was not really a decisive charge but more a scramble to make the most out of the situation. Crew chief Steve Addington had to make some gambling pit road calls pay off, with Stewart starting deep in the field and then falling a lap down. And they need some luck too, getting a 'Lucky Dog.'
     But at the end, it was NASCAR's questionable call to blackflag Johnson on the final restart.
     NASCAR insisted the call was 'easy,' and Johnson, running second at the restart, on the inside lane, was easily far ahead of leader Montoya when they reached the start-finish line.
    However Johnson -- pointing to the clearly defined restart 'box' down near the fourth turn -- said Montoya simply didn't go when they reached that 'box.'
    Drivers -- whether at Bowman Gray Stadium or any major league Sprint Cup track -- play games on restarts. Some leaders lag, hoping to get a rival to jump.
    That's what Johnson insists. And he would almost certainly have won the Dover race if not for that black flag.
    NASCAR has been criticized by some for what sometimes looks like a bias in rulings that favor Johnson. It is unclear if that played a role in this decision.

   Tony Stewart leading Juan Pablo Montoya in the final miles of the Dover 400 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

      "Jimmie was laying off about just nearly a car length from me, and I knew he was trying to jump the start," Montoya said. "I backed off a little bit, for us to line up...and he didn't want to do it.
     "When we got to the (restart) line, I think he wanted to time it.... and he timed it too well.
      "He wanted to get the jump on me, and he just jump it too much. 
       "I would have tried to do the same. 
      "It's one of those deals when you time it too good, it actually hurts you."

    "I totally disagree with the call," Johnson countered.
    "I was half-throttle the whole front-stretch...and at some point, I got to go.
    "NASCAR has the judgment to decide if you jumped it or not. But I'm like 'He's not even going.'
    "I'm not sure if his car broke or if he was off-power or spun the tires.
     "I'm running half-throttle down the frontstretch waiting for him, and he never comes.
    "A bummer way to lose a race. We certainly had the winning car."
     NASCAR allows a driver to 'give back' a spot so gained on a restart, without penalty.
     "I tried to give it back," Johnson said "I was hopeful they would look at the telemetry and see.  They have that ability."
     Johnson is apparently referring to NASCAR's scoring system, which can determine how fast every driver runs through every segment every lap of a race.

 Smoke is smokin' again, and smiling (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Stewart's view of the restart controversy is simple: "Juan was leading the race...so he's in charge of the restart pace.
   "The zone we have to restart in is not very leaderfriendly.  Most of the time, the guy second has a huge advantage, and he will lay back and roll the start.
   "I feel bad for Jimmie, because Jimmie ran good all day.  He didn't deserve to be in a situation at the end.
    "But he knows the rules; he knows the leader has to cross the start-finish line first. 
    "Juan is smart enough to not let the second place guy take advantage of the restart.  And that's what he did.
    "I feel bad for Jimmie because I don't think that's what he deserved.  You don't want it coming down to a decision NASCAR has to make."
    Stewart suggests NASCAR adjust the restarting zone.
     That, he suggests, "would give the leader more flexibility of where they pick the restart up at. And it takes away that opportunity for the secondplace guy to take advantage of the restarts."
    ...as if the leader, with clean air, doesn't have enough advantages himself.

  Tony Stewart celebrating his first Sprint Cup tour victory in nearly a year (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
     Montoya, for his part, was probably more upset with losing a race that he could have won. His only two tour wins since joining NASCAR in 2006 have been on the Sonoma and Watkins Glen road courses, most recently in the summer of 2010.
    "At the end, it was way too loose, and I just couldn't hold Tony off," Montoya said.
    Stewart himself was surprised with the win: "If somebody told me it was going to be that way, I would have told them they were crazy.  This thing was not a car that could win the race. 
    "Just great pit strategy at the end."
    It's been nearly a full year since Stewart's last tour win, at Daytona last summer. And this year he and his two teammates have been woefully off the mark week after week. Stewart's only top-10 coming into Dover was an eighth at Phoenix in early March.
    And with each passing week of this slump, Stewart has become increasingly more grumpy.
    "It's definitely momentum," he insists. "We've got two weeks of momentum now, at two totally different tracks.  That is big. 
    "Momentum is huge in this sport."
    "We've still got a lot of work to do," Stewart frets.  "Now it's trying to be more consistent and stay in the top-10 more and make our program better."





How about instead of the leader gaming the restarts, how about instead when the green flag flies, pedals to the floor, and the first car across the start / finish line is the leader? This is racing, isn't it?

Pemberton makes me sad!

I am glad you're back, Mike; you had me worried. I was trying to figure out how to send out search parties.
But NASCAR and Robin Pemberton make me sad. Juan admits he was jacking with Jimmie to get him disqualified. Is this not about the same as Jr. Earnhardt admitting to stopping on the track to get a yellow? What world are they in complaining how the 2nd place car has such a huge advantage? What world, what universe? I've seen the 2nd place car ahead and nothing was done. Go back to 1965 with single file restarts, or maybe put the leader in row one by himself/herself if there is such a huge problem with the car in second. Signed: Sad in the Heartland


They said a few weeks ago if you got to the restart zone and the leader didn't go, the second place car could. Is this another ruling by nascar on a different day now?

Thank God the darrell waltrip blabber is gone for another yr. If nascar wants to find out some of the reasons people aren't watching, they just found it. The endless blabbering about how much better danica is doing is ridiculous. Does he not realize people can read statistics and see the races for themselves. The constant 'danica's car isn't handling the way it should' gets old. How about the truth she's in way over her head and needs to be in the truck series. Mike mulhern and dave despain are the only two reporters with the balls to say it.

Hey, Rick Hendrick, have you seen what matt kenseth has done with great equipment and another crew chief. Get Jeff Gordon another crew chief. It's not working with the one he has now.

Ford, you need someone to help Jack Roush; he can't do it all by himself against toyota and chevy, and he's not a spring chicken any more.
Get yates some cars, and help the woods run the whole series and a second car and a driver with more experience to help bayne.

The fox crew will be missed except for waltrip. Nothing personal against dw, but he ran his course yrs ago and now with the constant toyota harp and danica nonsense fox needs a new leader. Kyle Petty could fill that role easily with a quick wit and a honest opinion on what's going on.

Restarts and games

It was difficult to tell if Montoya had any problems on the restart...I think he just outsmarted JJ and JJ took the bait. I would give JJ the benefit of the doubt ..except..JJ was the only car to pass Montoya...even the third place car (Bowyer) stayed with Montoya ...and I didn't hear any complaints from the rest of the field or see any major stacking up behind Montoya. I think the 48 team got schooled...and it ticked them off!! A little nugget for the rest of the field to tuck away for future reference!

Safer barriers

Funny thing, NASCAR has pushed its "safety" initiative - it was one of their driving forces to put the ugly COT out there, and yet there are still tracks without safer barriers in place all the way around. I understand it costs money to do it and that with the sport having problems with attendance, the tracks aren't bringing in as much money as in the glory days, but let's face it, Gordon has acted as crash test dummy at multiple tracks. The wreck at Vegas a few years ago and at Pocono too made me stand there in my living room watching the TV screen waiting to see if my favorite driver was going to be OK. Then you have Hamlin (one of the young guns) who sustained a major injury because there wasn't a safer barrier in place.

I'm sure that Gordon is absolutely right - it is a cost issue for the tracks. I don't want to see a driver die before this gets fixed.

Somehow I have a hard time feeling sorry for Johnson. He knew he jumped the restart. If he had throttled back, he could have passed JPM for the lead, certainly his car seemed to be good enough to do it. He made a choice and it didn't work out.

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