Middlebrook adds unpredictability to appeals
May 06, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
Related: Complete Penske penalty coverage
What will John Middlebrook do?
That’s the question being asked around NASCAR as Penske Racing’s appeal of fines, suspensions and point deductions stemming from a failed inspection at Texas Motor Speedway moves to the sport’s Chief Appellate Officer, whose brief tenure in that position has been defined by unpredictability.
Last week, three members of the National Stock Car Racing Appeals Panel upheld sanctions levied against the teams of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano for rear-end housings that were confiscated by NASCAR before the April 13 event in Fort Worth. Team owner Roger Penske will make a final plea to Middlebrook, who will hear arguments beginning at noon Tuesday at the NASCAR Research and Development Center in Concord, N.C. His decision is final.
What that decision might be, no one is sure. The former General Motors executive has shown something of an independent streak since becoming Chief Appellate Officer in February of 2010, amending penalties in four of the five cases he has heard to date. The most notable of those involved the No. 48 team of Jimmie Johnson, who was docked 25 points last year for what NASCAR said were modifications to his car’s C-posts that could have provided the vehicle an aerodynamic advantage in the Daytona 500.
Middlebrook overturned the points deduction, as well as six-week suspensions to crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec -- all of which had been originally upheld by a three-member appeals panel -- while leaving intact a $100,000 fine to Knaus.
That’s not the only penalty amended by Middlebrook, who spent 49 years at GM before retiring as global vice president for sales, service, and marketing. Middlebrook has been involved in motorsports, having played a key role in establishing the Corvette racing program, and counts NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick among his close friends. Middlebrook, who serves for $1 a year, was chosen by NASCAR President Mike Helton to replace Charles Strang, who had held the same position for many years.
The first case Middlebrook heard as Chief Appellate Officer was in October of 2010, when Richard Childress Racing appealed penalties stemming from a failed post-race inspection at New Hampshire, including a 150-point deduction to Clint Bowyer under the previous scoring system. Middlebook upheld the points deduction, which was crippling to Bowyer’s title hopes, but reduced a $150,000 fine against crew chief Shane Wilson to $100,000, and cut six-race suspensions to Wilson and car chief Chad Haney to four.
Also in 2010, Middlebrook reduced a fine Nationwide Series team owner Johnny Davis incurred for an altercation with another competitor from $5,000 to $2,500. In early 2012, he reinstated part-time Nationwide driver Peyton Sellers, who had been suspended indefinitely by NASCAR for an altercation with an official at a short-track event.
Last fall, Middlebrook upheld six-week suspensions to RCR car chief Craig Smokstad and crewman Gary Hutchens, who had been penalized by NASCAR for illegal frame-rail modifications found on Paul Menard’s car at Michigan. Menard was docked 25 points and crew chief Slugger Labbe fined $100,000 and suspended six weeks for the violation, but RCR did not appeal those penalties to Middlebrook after they were upheld by three members of the Appeals Panel.
Now, it’s Penske’s turn. Keselowski and Logano were each docked 25 points by NASCAR after officials confiscated the rear-end housings in the Nos. 2 and 22 cars during inspection before the Texas race. Paul Wolfe, crew chief on the No. 2 car, was fined $100,000 and suspended for six points events plus the Sprint All-Star Race, as was Todd Gordon, his counterpart on the No. 22 car.
Suspended for the same duration were Keselowski's car chief Jerry Kelley and team engineer Brian Wilson, as were Logano's car chief Raymond Fox and team engineer Samuel Stanley. Travis Geisler, competition director for the Penske team and a former crew chief, was also suspended six weeks. All suspended personnel were also placed on probation through Dec. 31. If Middlebrook upholds the full suspensions, they would each be out until the June 29 race at Kentucky.
The violations stemmed from infractions on the vehicles' rear ends, leading to a rushed change-out of the confiscated parts during pre-race ceremonies at Texas, and forcing Logano to start at the rear of the field because NASCAR ruled his car did not make the starting grid on time. 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.
Wolfe, Gordon, Geisler, and the other suspended members of the Penske team have been able to work through the appeals process, although the point deductions to the drivers have already gone into effect. The three members of the Appeals Panel who last week upheld the penalties were Brandon Igdalsky, president of Pocono Raceway; Dale Pinilis, operator of Bowman Gray Stadium; and former NASCAR vice president Paul Brooks.
Penske’s final plea continues a busy penalty cycle in NASCAR. Wednesday at 9 a.m., the Appeals Panel will hear from Joe Gibbs Racing, which will argue penalties levied against the No. 20 team for a connecting rod in Matt Kenseth's winning Kansas engine 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 panel uphold the penalties, Gibbs also has the option of a final plea to Middlebrook.
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