News & Media

Rear-end setups at center stage after Keselowski comments

August 24, 2012, David Caraviello,

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Are rear-end setups pushing the rules, or the newest innovation?

Dale Earnhardt Jr. gave Brad Keselowski his big break in NASCAR, hiring the then-little known driver to pilot his Nationwide Series entry in what began as a three-race tryout. Keselowski won six times in that No. 88 car to put JR Motorsports on the map, and sought Earnhardt's blessing before making the leap to the Sprint Cup level with Penske Racing. The two have remained close, that one-time relationship between boss and employee transforming into one of equal standing and respect.

But that doesn't mean the two always agree on everything. Especially when the subject turns to Hendrick Motorsports, and the rear-end setups that have made the organization's cars so strong the second half of this season.

"Brad's a really good guy, has a pretty good heart. And he's a really great race car driver, and I wish he'd concentrate on that."


"Me and Brad are friends. I don't want any drama with Brad," Earnhardt said Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway. "I don't particularly like the things he's said lately about the company I drive for, so I take offense to the claims and the accusations. Just natural for me to do that. We're friends, and I don't want any drama [with] him. That's where I stand on that."

Oh, what yaw hath wrought. Earnhardt's comments were in reaction to remarks Keselowski made last weekend at Michigan, when he referred to the cars of Earnhardt and Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson as "tricked up," and said his Penske team might be at a performance disadvantage because it wasn't as willing as some of its competitors to tiptoe through the sport's gray area. The saga began when other drivers noticed something different about the rear end of Johnson's car in a dominant victory at Indianapolis, and it's ignited a debate over that fine line between illegal and finding an edge.

"Everybody's entitled to their opinion, but I think you need to have your facts straight and understand what's going on," Johnson said. "Our car's been through inspection multiple times. There's nothing out of line taking place."

Sound Off: Johnson discusses Keselowski's comments

Indeed, it passed again Friday before rolling out onto the track. Last week at Michigan, race winner Greg Biffle said the issue stems from teams looking for a way to seal air from the bottom of their cars after NASCAR reduced the length of the right side skirt by an inch and a half. Crews are now using sway bars, springs, and tolerances in the axle housing to try and make up the difference, which can make the car appear to slide on its yaw axis as it traverses the corner. Team owner Jack Roush said he had received assurances from NASCAR that the tactic was within the rules.

"These days I don't think you can afford to have something illegal," Roush driver Matt Kenseth said. "You see how huge the penalties are when you do. So I think we're always trying to work within those rules and within the framework of NASCAR rules to get your car to go as fast as possible without crossing the line."

That much was evident when NASCAR hammered Paul Menard's team with fines, suspensions and a point deduction for modifications allegedly made to the frame rails on the No. 27 car, penalties owner Richard Childress plans to appeal. Keselowski clarified his comments this week, saying he didn't intend for his observations on what Hendrick and other teams were doing differently to carry an implication of cheating.

"I think in general, there's a misconception in the stock-car community that since we drive stock cars, they're all the same. And that anyone who is driving a car that is not the same is cheating, which is a bit baffling to me," said Keselowski, who has won the past two Sprint Cup events at Bristol.

"My comments were in general an observation to what was being seen, and I think those were turned around into an accusation of cheating. ... I made it a point to not call out specific teams, and I think I said in a sense that there's a half-dozen to a dozen cars that are running those things. ... I don't think there's anyone out there who doesn't believe the Hendrick cars were one of those groups, and I'm not trying to say that's the case. But I respect them in their ability to do those things and be innovators accordingly."

"Everybody's entitled to their opinion, but I think you need to have your facts straight and understand what's going on. There's nothing out of line taking place."


The question, though, is whether Keselowski's Penske team will adopt similar setup tactics before the circuit moves next weekend to the big speedway in Atlanta, where such things can be more pronounced. "That's something we're watching," the driver said. But he added that team owner Roger Penske has traditionally been hesitant to take chances with NASCAR rules, something retired Penske great and recent Hall of Fame selection Rusty Wallace said goes back to the organization's founding.

"When we started this team in '91, Roger and [team vice president] Walt [Czarnecki] and I sat down and had a long discussion and said, 'Look, if we've got to cheat to beat these guys, we're not going to do it. We've got too many employees, we've got too many companies, first-class people we're trying to impress, we don't want to be known as cheaters. We don't want to be known as people who push the rules too far and get caught.' So I know Penske Racing can only go so far, because that's Roger's mentality to not go over the line," Wallace said.

"I know I've gotten a butt-chewing a couple of times, one time with a set of titanium roof flaps we got in a lot of trouble with ... and then another time with a carburetor that was so close it was unreal at Daytona. I know he didn't like it at all. He was very, very upset about it. He made it crystal clear, and said ... 'Look. we've got to find another way to win these races. We can't push [NASCAR]. They will not go for it.' "

And yet, this current debate hinges on whether these rear-end setups are indeed pushing NASCAR, or just the latest breakthrough in the sport. Earnhardt can remember going to New Hampshire one year and seeing Geoffrey Bodine running in the top five in a car owned by Joe Bessey, whose team was ahead of the curve in the use of bump stops. He can remember one all-star weekend, and watching a car owned by Penske -- yes, Penske -- go down the straightaway sideways, a vanguard of the "twisting" of the last generation of Sprint Cup vehicles. He remembers everyone trying to play catch-up after one team found an advantage in coil binding springs. Now, the craze is rear-end suspensions.

"The real big innovations, like bump stops and coil-binding springs and other things, that happens once every four years or something, where something real big comes in and changes the sport quite a bit and everybody eventually gets on the wagon, then everybody has to find another area to work in," Earnhardt said. "But there's all kind of little things that happen all year long. Little tiny things that are small pieces for speed that teams do. It could be even in the engines and all kinds of things. But that happens all year long. Every week, somebody's got an idea. That's what's supposed to happen, anyways. You've got all those guys you pay to be innovating, engineers and stuff. Every week, somebody's got an idea that needs to be tried somewhere."

Besides, Earnhardt said, that degree of innovation helps prevent 43 cars from riding around in a single file. He believes it's good for the sport -- even if in this case, his friend Keselowski may seem a little suspicious of it.

"Brad's a really good guy, has a pretty good heart," Earnhardt said. "And he's a really great race car driver, and I wish he'd concentrate on that. He likes to talk a lot, but I think his true skills shine on the race track and not really behind the microphone."