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Published on April 19th, 2011 | by Michael J Smith


Johnson’s Pass: The Difference Between ‘On’ And ‘Below’

A prior engagement kept me from watching the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway in real time. As a result, I started watching it on DVR, right around the time the live race ended.

I logged into Twitter shortly after I finished watching the race, which was about three hours after the live race ended and was surprised to find that Twitter was ablaze with an argument between Jim Utter, NASCAR reporter for The Charlotte Observer, and NASCAR fans (mainly Jimmie Johnson fans) over whether Johnson used the yellow line to pass Mark Martin.

For those of you who do not know, at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega, drivers cannot go below the yellow line and advance their position. If they do, they must give the positions back or serve a penalty. They can, however, go below the yellow line if they are forced down.

In Sunday’s race, Jimmie Johnson and perhaps Dale Earnhardt Jr had two tires below the yellow line as they were advancing on Martin. Ultimately, this turned out to be the beginning of the race-winning pass. Utter commented, “[Johnson] wins after going below the yellow line,” which touched off a mini firestorm.

Some fans argued that while Johnson was “on” the line, he did not go “below” the line. These fans argued that he should not be penalized.

Utter, however, points to Denny Hamlin’s Bud Shootout yellow-line penalty as an example of being on the line versus being below the line:

Watching this replay countless times, as I have, this is a completely different instance than what Jimmie Johnson did. At the 1:44-mark, Hamlin had two tires on the line as he began to pass Ryan Newman. While he was initially forced down there, Newman moved back up the track, giving Hamlin room.

Hamlin could have moved back above the yellow line at this point, but he did not. Instead, he moved down more, crossing both lines completely (1:49 mark of the video).  He then came back up the track in front of Newman and crossed the finish line.

It’s hard to say whether or not Hamlin would have been penalized if he moved back above the yellow line at the first opportunity, but my guess is that NASCAR would have allowed him a little more flexibility. But because he did not, and he went completely “below” the yellow line (all four tires under the line) he was penalized.

Let’s look at Jimmie Johnson’s winning pass in the Aaron’s 499:

At the 0:16-mark, you can see Johnson’s left-side tires are just touching the line. He is gaining on Martin at this point but has not officially passed him. It looks like he comes off the yellow line before he actually passes him (nose in front of Martin’s nose). But, the video is inconclusive.

Let’s assume that he did not get his tires off the line at the point he passed Martin. I believe NASCAR gave him more flexibility because he 1) got off of the yellow line as soon as he could and 2) he had two left-side tires touching the line, thus he was “on” the line, not “below” it.

If the roles were reversed (Hamlin “on” the line at Talladega and Johnson “below” the line at Daytona), I believe the penalty/non-penalty would have been the same, with Johnson getting the penalty at Daytona and Hamlin getting the win at Talladega. The penalty had nothing to do with the drivers involved.

To further illustrate my point, take a look at these videos.

In the 2003 Aaron’s 499, at the 1:15-mark in the clip, Dale Earnhardt Jr passed Matt Kenseth with his two left-side tires well below the yellow line. Earnhardt was over the line longer than Johnson was and Earnhardt didn’t get a penalty.

There’s a chance NASCAR wanted Earnhardt to win and thus gave him more flexibility. But, you could also argue that he did not dip “below” the line because his right-side tires did not go below the line. He could be considered, for argument’s sake, “on” the line.

In the 2008 Aaron’s 499, at the 1:29-mark in the video, Kyle Busch passed Jimmie Johnson with two tires below the yellow line in what ultimately turned out to be the race-winning pass. He, however, was forced down and came up at the first opportunity. He too was “on” the line, not “below” it, and thus was not given a penalty.

In the 2008 Amp Energy 500, at the 1:54-mark in the clip, Regan Smith is forced “below” the yellow line. He and Tony Stewart nearly make contact, forcing Smith down the track. If he held his car with the left-side tires only over the line (and thus stayed “on” the line), perhaps he would have picked up the victory. Instead, he had all four tires well “below” the yellow line as he made the pass and he was penalized.

In the 2009 Coke Zero 400, Hamlin had two tires below the yellow line when he passed Kurt Busch. While this wasn’t in the closing laps, he still used the yellow line to pass. You could argue that he was forced down there. But because he kept his right-sides above the line, he was considered on it, and wasn’t penalized. If NASCAR had a vendetta against Hamlin, that would have been a penalty.

In the 2010 Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, at the 0:22-mark in the video, Kevin Harvick’s winning pass was made with his two left-side tires on the line, despite there being no need for him to go that low. While you could argue that having his tires on the line at that point wasn’t intentional or an advantage, it isn’t much different than what Johnson did. Yet, no one cried foul. You could argue that like this pass, Johnson’s tires-on-the-line was incidental.

In the 2010 Mountain Dew 250 at Daytona, Kyle Busch passed Aric Almirola at the 0:53-mark with two left-sides over the line to win the race and he was not penalized. He, however, was forced down after contact with Almirola, and he kept his right-sides above the line, thus making him “on” the line, not “below” it.

After looking at all of these videos, it seems like NASCAR gives a little more leeway if you keep your right-sides above the line, and are thus “on” the line instead of “below” it.

I’m not saying that what Johnson did was or was not a penalty. It was clear, however, that he was “on” the line, not “below” it. If you penalized him for that in Sunday’s Aaron’s 499, then you have to penalize Earnhardt in the 2004 Aaron’s 599; Kusch in the 2008 Aaron’s 499; Hamlin in the 2009 Coke Zero 400; and Harvick in the 2010 Coke Zero 400.

I still think NASCAR’s judgment is not always consistent. But, in this case, I don’t blame them for not penalizing Johnson. After all, if NASCAR penalized every instance of going on the yellow line, we would see more of this:

And this:

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About the Author

Michael J. Smith is a NASCAR enthusiast and blogger. In addition to founding this website, Michael is a journalist with over a decade of experience writing for prestigious media organizations.

5 Responses to Johnson’s Pass: The Difference Between ‘On’ And ‘Below’

  1. Brian says:

    What about the Amirola win disallowed with the same instance with Stewart. I do not remember his right sides being “below” the line only his lefts.
    You missed this obvious example to make your point or did you leave it off on purpose because it contradicted your argument.
    Many drivers during the course of a race have been penalized for left sides “below” the line when passing. Also, Johnson was in the process of passing the 5 and thus the Musgrave rule should be in affect as well. He did not pass the truck in front of him he was, in NASCAR’s own words,”in the act of passing” and was penalized even though the pass did not actually happen until after the line.

  2. Michael J Smith says:

    Thanks for commenting, Brian.

    I’m not sure which race you’re referring to. I can’t find any instance of where Tony Stewart won a race and Aric Almirola was penalized for being on or going below the yellow line. Which race was it? (If you send me the race, I’ll check it out and update my posting.)

    I think you may be thinking of Regan Smith going below the yellow line to pass Tony Stewart, in which case that example was included in the article, and was clearly explained.

    My point was not that Johnson didn’t complete the pass until he was off the line because the video is inconclusive — it doesn’t show that he is clearly off the line. My point is that Johnson touched the line in the process of passing Martin and in the instances I showed that usually isn’t penalized on the last lap or in the closing laps of the race.

    I wasn’t making a case that it was right or wrong. I was making the case that because NASCAR didn’t penalize the drivers in those cases, they weren’t going to penalize Johnson in this case.

    Again, thanks for commenting.

  3. Rebecca Kivak says:

    Brian, you could be thinking of Tony Stewart’s 2008 Talladega win over Regan Smith, which Michael explained clearly above, or you could be thinking about when Kyle Busch edged out Almirola for a truck win at Talladega last year. Almirola said Busch went below the yellow line to make the pass. Here’s a link to an article about it:

  4. Michael J Smith says:

    Thanks Rebecca. The article you included in your comment is talking about the race in the eighth video above.

    Thanks for commenting.

  5. Pingback: Michael Tires Plus Drivers

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