Johnson accuses Montoya of playing games, but it was points leader who lost.

Last updated: June 08. 2013 12:05AM - 1001 Views
By - psokoloski@civitasmedia.com - (570) 991-6392

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LONG POND - It happened on a race course, not a basketball court.

But the same question that dominated the NBA playoffs for a few days is now making the rounds around NASCAR.

Was it a flop or a flagrant foul?

It seems everyone on the track has an opinion about what happened on the final restart at Dover last week, when points leader Jimmy Johnson passed race leader Juan Pablo Montoya on the final restart and lost a chance at victory in the process.

“This sport is pretty complex and there are judgment calls that NASCAR has to make,” driver Carl Edwards said.

At first glance, the call seemed pretty clear at Dover.

Just 19 laps before the finish, Montoya was the race leader with cars running under the day’s final caution for an accident cleanup, which means nobody can pass him until the pace car leaves the track.

Johnson flew by Montoya the second racing action resumed and was immediately flagged for passing the leader before it was time - a penalty that dropped Johnson from front of the field all the way to the back for the race’s homestretch.

But looks can be deceiving.

Johnson accused Montoya of intentionally slowing down for the restart in an attempt to trick his top competitor at the time into a penalty that would take him out of contention.

“I feel that in NASCAR and auto racing, there are very few moments where maybe a penalty could be drawn or a foul could be drawn, like we see in the NBA,” Johnson said. “Right now, there is flopping that goes on. I really believe that in the restart zone to the finish line that Juan just didn’t go.”

Jeff Gordon, Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, is also going with that version.

“I think Juan did a great job,” Gordon said. “I’ve been watching NBA (playoffs) lately and watching the flop and that was as good of a flop as it gets.”

Montoya maintains it was more of an infraction on Johnson’s part.

“If I did that (pull back), why (was it that) only Jimmie passed me in his lane?” Montoya argued. “I mean, you think about it. Let’s say I had a bad start and he beat me by a bumper or a half a car length. NASCAR wouldn’t have said anything. He wanted to time it. He just mis-timed it. You have to re-start between the two cones that I did, and you are not supposed to beat the leader to the line. What is so hard about that?

“Crazy enough, if he would have backed off, let me go, he probably would have passed me again.”

Neither driver passed the checkered flag first.

Tony Stewart wound up winning at Dover, while Montoya finished second and Johnson - saddled with the illegal passing penalty - pulled in at 17th.

But war of words between Johnson and Montoya put an interesting spin on the spirit of the re-start rule as drivers arrived at Pocono Raceway this weekend for Sunday’s Party in the Poconos 400.

Could race leaders manipulate the re-start to gain an unfair advantage?

Edwards said it’s happened to him.

“What I’ve had happen,” Edwards said, “is I’ve started second and the leader spun his tires a little bit and he just said, ‘To hell with it, I’m not going,’ and made it look really, really bad. I’m not saying Montoya did it, but that’s something you worry that the leader could do.”

Most drivers wouldn’t hesitate to take advantage of a similar situation to gain an edge, driver Denny Hamlin said.

“Everyone kind of plays games at the end,” Hamlin explained. “If you’re not the leader, you can’t play games. You just have to do whatever the first car does, and if you get beat into the corner, so be it. We run re-starts all the time, I’ve done it and everyone’s done it at some point.”

If that’s the case, Johnson said, NASCAR officials have to flag the floppers quickly.

“It’s difficult after the race,” Johnson said. “The race had been taken away from us, the championship bonus points are gone and it’s very difficult at that point to do the right thing.

“With the data we have and the technology we have today, we have the tools to make a better decision at that point in time,” Johnson continued. “From the re-start zone to the finish line, if a guy breaks or has trouble, NASCAR has the ability to make the call and say they had trouble and it’s fine to go.”

What made Johnson jump look worse, Gordon said, was when Clint Bowyer started to sprint to the re-start along with Johnson, but backed off before passing Montoya.

“The 15 (car) started to go with Jimmie, and then I think he checked up and then that stacked us up pretty bad,” Gordon said. “From inside the car, I was just trying to figure out how not to wreck by the time we got to turn one.”

But until NASCAR enforces infractions on leaders feigning an attempt at making true re-start runs, there’s only one way to play the game.

“I guess at the end of the day,” Edwards said, “you can’t beat the leader to the line.”

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