LONG POND, Pa. - Give the fans what they want.
That was the company line recited by NASCAR drivers and officials this weekend at Pocono Raceway, where the sport will debut a rule change aimed at keeping spectators in the stands and television viewers glued to the action every time the green flag waves.
Beginning with today's Pocono 500, every caution period will be followed by a double-file restart patterned after the format used in the Sprint Cup Series' all-star event.
On each restart, the leaders will race side-by-side at the front of the field, with the odd-place cars falling in line on the inside - or lower groove - and the even-place cars lining up on the outside. Previously, all lead-lap cars raced single-file on the outside while the lapped cars lined up on the inside.
"We've heard the fans loud and clear," NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France said in a statement.
That kind of reasoning was not lost on drivers who have seen their share of empty grandstand seats this season. "It's just another step to keep delivering to the fans what they want," said Ryan Newman. "It's something that I think will make the racing better from an excitement standpoint, and that's what we're here for."
Mark Martin agreed. "We're in competition with every other form of entertainment," he said. "It's about trying to step up your game."
Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition, said the time was right for a change.
"We've talked about this for a number of years and we've worked on this for weeks and weeks," Pemberton said. "Coming on the heels of one of the best all-star events we've had in some time, we figured we should strike while the iron's hot."
Still, the timing of the move caught at least one veteran driver off guard.
"I'm shocked that we're doing this this year, I had told someone that we would do double-file restarts in 2009," Jeff Burton said with a laugh. "I have become very used to [NASCAR'S] shipliner analogy, about how it is hard to turn a ship real quick."
One aspect of the new rule that caught Matt Kenseth's attention is what is being called the "wave around." Lapped cars that are behind the pace car but in front of the leader will be waved around to join the tail end of the field - as long as they don't make a pit stop.
"The strategy is different if there are 10 or 15 cars on the lead lap compared to 35 cars on the lead lap late in the race," Kenseth said. "So there certainly could be more gambling to try to make it on fuel or tires late in the race" rather than lose track position.
Greg Biffle called the double-file restart "a game-changer," and agreed with Kasey Kahne that the opportunity to race for a spot near the front of the field is far more appealing than battling your way through lapped traffic.
Series leader Tony Stewart also jumped on board with the move, saying, "it brings sanity back to restarts," while Jeff Gordon explained, "It's quick, it's easy, and it makes sense."
Kyle Busch believes the rule change will result in better racing at a roomy track like Pocono, while Jimmie Johnson appreciated the option that the race leader will have - to head the field either in the outside or inside line.
Kenseth mulled over the pros and cons of any rule change, especially in season. But he came to the conclusion so many of his peers offered.
"Basically everything NASCAR does is for the fans," he said. "That doesn't mean that they're going to jump through hoops and do stuff if they don't think it's the right thing to do. But if they see something they think will make for better competition and get the fans into it more, they're always going to look at that and do that."
The Track: Pocono Raceway is on Route 115 in Long Pond, Pa. Take the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike (I-476) to Exit 95. Take I-80 east toward Hazleton/Mount Pocono to Exit 284, head south on Route 115 for 3 miles.
Today's on-track events: Sprint Cup Series driver introductions, 1:30 p.m.; Pocono 500 Sprint Cup Series race, 2 p.m.
Television: NASCAR RaceDay (Speed, 10:30 a.m.); NASCAR on TNT Live! (TNT, 12:30 p.m.); Countdown to Green (TNT, 1 p.m.); Pocono 500 Sprint Cup Series race (TNT, 2 p.m.); NASCAR Victory Lane (Speed, 8 p.m.).
Tickets: Call 1-800-722-3929 or check the track's Web site at www.poconoraceway.com.