Penalties reduced on Penske Racing's final appeal
May 07, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
Suspensions cut, but points deductions, fines remain for Texas violations
Related: Penske penalty timeline
CONCORD, N.C. -- It wasn’t a victory for Roger Penske, but the car owner certainly seemed pleased with the outcome.
Penske on Tuesday made his final appeal regarding penalties assessed to the teams of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano for violations April 13 at Texas Motor Speedway, and Chief Appellate Officer John Middlebrook slashed the suspensions of seven crew members from six points races to two. Middlebrook upheld 25-point deductions to the drivers and $100,00 fines to the crew chiefs, but trimmed four weeks off suspensions that will now end prior to the June 2 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event at Dover International Speedway.
“Obviously, I’m very happy with the outcome,” Penske said at the NASCAR Research and Development Center. “As you know, this sport has been built on innovation. All of us try to innovate in areas that are not defined in the rule book. We were in that area. … To me, it’s past it now. We’ve moved on. I have to say again the process was very fair and equitable that NASCAR was able to provide for Penske Racing and our whole team.”
Per the Sprint Cup Series Rule Book, Middlebrook’s decision is final. “That’s his call, and we respect that process,” NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp said. “And we believe that it’s a just process that not only NASCAR has, but the teams have, for sure.”
Last week, three members of the National Stock Car Racing Appeals Panel -- Pocono Raceway president Brandon Igdalsky, Bowman Gray Stadium operator Dale Pinilis, and former NASCAR executive Paul Brooks -- unanimously upheld penalties stemming from the rear-end housings of the Penske cars, which were confiscated prior to the Texas event. As set forth in the rule book, Penske was able to make a final plea to Middlebrook, who in his relatively brief time as appeals chief, has made a habit of amending penalties.
He did it again Tuesday, cutting the suspensions of Keselowski’s crew chief Paul Wolfe, Logano’s crew chief Todd Gordon, team competition director Travis Geisler and four other crewmen from six points races to two. Under the original penalty, they would have been forced to sit out until the June 29 event at Kentucky. Now, they’ll miss this weekend’s event at Darlington Raceway as well as the Sprint All-Star Race and Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“To me,” Penske said, “it will be business as usual at Darlington.”
The final appeal began at noon ET and lasted roughly three hours, with Middlebrook hearing separately from John Darby, NASCAR’s managing director of competition, and a Penske group that included Penske, team president Tim Cindric, executive vice president Walt Czarnecki, Wolfe, Gordon and Geisler. Middlebrook also reviewed last week’s initial appeal. The Chief Appellate Officer then called both sides into the room for a final discussion before making his decision.
To Penske, the most constructive part of the final appeal was being able to debate the infraction with Darby, who he said supplied him with specifics rather than sections of the rule book.
In the initial appeal, “we were given only specific titles in the rule book and the areas where they felt where we didn’t comply,” Penske said. “The conversation with Darby was very professional on both sides, and we had the opportunity to discuss our situation and place our position on the facts that we had. … To me, I think it was a good outcome for everyone.”
The violations stemmed from infractions in rear-end housings, which have been under scrutiny since last season, and prompted a rushed change-out of equipment in the Penske cars before the Texas race. Penalties followed days later, with NASCAR determining that the rear-end setups violated sections of the rule book pertaining to the correct size of mounting holes, and limitations on movement or realignment of suspension parts beyond normal rotation or travel.
“We drew a clear line last year with the rear-end housing, and said the science projects had gone on long enough,” Tharp said. “… It was something that we felt that the penalty, the enforcement behind the penalty, was warranted.”
Middlebrook has a history of unpredictable rulings, having now amended penalties in five of the six cases he’s heard since being appointed to the position by NASCAR President Mike Helton in early 2010. Before the Penske verdict, his most notable major decision involved the No. 48 car of Jimmie Johnson, who was docked 25 points while crew chief Chad Knaus was fined $100,000 and suspended six weeks for C-posts that failed inspection prior to the Daytona 500 last year. Middlebrook overturned the point deduction and suspension, while leaving the fine intact.
Tuesday fit that pattern. The reduced suspensions affect not only Wolfe, Gordon and Geisler, but also Keselowski’s car chief Jerry Kelley and engineer Brian Wilson, as well as Logano’s car chief Raymond Fox and engineer Samuel Stanley. The suspended personnel had been able to work while the appeal process was under way, although the point deductions went into effect immediately. Keselowski, who was second before the penalty, is currently fifth in the Sprint Cup standings. Logano was ninth before the penalty, and is now 18th.
“This is an innovating sport, and I can tell you the other 42 cars are out there innovating every day,” Penske said. “We’re going to continue to look at areas we can work in that we feel are within the rule book, and obviously I don’t want to get to the edge NASCAR felt we were in this particular situation, but we’ve got to be competitive in order to win. There are some very creative guys we meet every Sunday in NASCAR.”
The ruling isn’t likely to impact the manner in which NASCAR polices the sport. “There really aren’t any winners or losers here,” Tharp said. “I really don’t think there are. But it’s out responsibility to regulate the sport, and when we see things that are going on in the garage that we feel like we need to step in and rein back some, we’re going to do that. The teams know that.”
Wednesday brings another plea before the appeals panel, this one from Joe Gibbs Racing, which will argue penalties levied against the No. 20 team for a connecting rod in Matt Kenseth's race-winning engine at Kansas that was lighter than the minimum allowable weight. Kenseth was docked 50 points for that infraction, while crew chief Jason Ratcliff was suspended six weeks and fined $200,000, and Gibbs had his owners' license frozen for six weeks.
The connecting rod in question was manufactured by a vendor and placed in an engine built by Toyota Racing Development, which has said the violation was not an attempt to gain a competitive edge, and did not provide one. As is the case with the suspended Penske crewmen, Ratcliff can work until the appeal process is complete, although the point deduction has already gone into effect. Should the three-person panel uphold those penalties, Gibbs also has the option of a final plea to Middlebrook.
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