Race Weekend Central

Penske Penalities – Passive Pusnishment for Past Sins?

Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, and the entire Penske organization have had a tumultuous last few weeks. First, the dust up at Fontana with Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart for Logano, Saturday night’s exercise in stress management with getting the cars yanked out of inspection and on the grid as everybody else was getting ready to take off and race. Top 10’s for both cars (including a fifth for Logano) was followed by Brad expressing his displeasure over what he perceives as being singled out for the last week in the garage area, then going to The White House as part of his 2012 Championship recognition – under the specter of a terror attack that had occurred just 24 hours earlier.

On Wednesday, NASCAR’s hammer came down on the entire raceday braintrust of the No. 2 and 22 teams. Crew Chiefs Paul Wolfe and Todd Gordon both benched for six weeks. While a crew chief suspension is usually expected, what wasn’t, was the suspension of the car chiefs (responsible for execution of set up changes and raceday checks), and their lead engineers. For Keselowski’s No. 2 team, car chief Jerry Kelley, team engineer Brian Wilson and team manager Travis Geisler who covers the No. 22 as well are all out for six weeks. For Logano’s group, in addition to Gordon, car chief Raymond Fox and team engineer Samuel Stanley are out of the picture for the next six weeks, just as this team was starting to get its legs under them and gain some momentum.

Ouch. Kind of makes the matching $100,000 fines seem paltry in comparison.

Sure the commensurate 25-point fines are salt in the wound as well, but also look at the races they’re going to be out for: Richmond – first time with the Gen 6 car, and it’s the last race before The Chase starts; might be helpful to know how the car drives there considering the hole they’re going to have to dig out of. Talladega: The No. 2 is the defending champion, and he finished fourth at the Daytona 500 this year with a garbage bag for a front clip. Dover? Second race in The Chase. Pocono? Yeah, why would you want a track to help prep for The Brickyard? Southern 500 at Darlington – the Lady In Black is also the granddaddy of superspeedway races. Perhaps the most damning, missing Charlotte. The All-Star Race where everybody’s friends and families show up, the capital of NASCAR, big money race, and a chance to prep for NASCAR’s other crown jewel race – The Coca-Cola 600.

Now that we know if the harsh judgment that was visited upon the Captain’s crew this week, let’s take a look at the root cause of the issue.

This is the first fine with the new Gen 6 car. The last time we had a new car, the first fines were doled out at about this same time, when Tony Eury, Jr. was sent packing from Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and the No. 8 Budweiser team for six weeks for an improper spoiler mount prior to the Southern 500 — as well as a 100-point fine. NASCAR wanted to make sure they sent a message to the teams, no screwing around with the car. This time around, the fine and scramble in the inspection area was for rear-end housings that did not fit “the spirit of the rule.”

Spirit of the rule? So if I’m at 7-11, do I get booted for wearing pasties, tightie whities and slippers because it does not fit, “The spirit of the rule” of no shirt, no shoes, no service? Either it’s illegal or it’s not. If you don’t like the spirit of the interpretation, fix your rule. That’s what’s done in legislatures across the fruited plain when there’s a law that’s confusing or difficult to enforce.

However, remember it was the Penske cars who also introduced at Charlotte the offset rear-end housings with the CoT that had them crabbed out like a B-52 on final approach in an effort to generate more side-force in the corners. This isn’t their first go-round with tail happy trickery.

And why so harsh so soon – particularly to the defending champion – a couple of days before he’s to travel to the nation’s capital, meet with the President, and represent the sport? My personal feelings are that this seems like unofficial punishment for comments Keselowski made about the sport prior to the season starting, and NASCAR’s way of evening things out for Joe Gibbs Racing after Joey Logano’s rift with Denny Hamlin led to Hamlin’s fractured vertebrae (i.e., busted spine bone), and six weeks on the sidelines. Hamlin actually tweeted following the announcement of the penalties, “NASCAR docked points.. Can I have em? Pretty please? #chase.” He had also tweeted that Logano cost him more than 25 points at Fontana.

This coupled with the blatant blown pit box non-violation at Martinsville, and connecting the dots becomes a bit easier.

And what of this, “bull$***” taking place in the garage that Keselowski was referring to after the race at Texas? One rumor has Chad Knaus of all people narcing on the 2 and 22 to NASCAR, based on where their garage stall was to them over the weekend and the view he had of the cars. At Martinsville two weeks ago, Jimmie Johnson and Joey Logano got together during practice, with Knaus expressing his displeasure of the incident to Todd Gordon, Logano’s crew chief. Is this further retribution stemming from an isolated on-track incident?

Knaus calling out somebody for creatively interpreting rules is ironic at best – after all, he’s more or less become synonymous with the term “six-race suspension” over the years, though it has never seemed to affect the team’s performance. The first time it happened as crew chief with Hendrick Motorsports in 2006, they won the first two of the first three races of the season with Darian Grubb, the team engineer at the time, atop the box – including the Daytona 500.

While I understand the need to enforce rules and contain competition with regards to engineering and gaining an unfair advantage (which is an oxymoron in and of itself), what I can’t grasp is NASCAR’s fanatical hatred of anything remotely opposed to “the spirit” of their new car. It’s as if they feel they’ve put it all on black on the Gen 6, as if it is the sole make-or-break item that will dictate the future and success of the sport. First, Denny Hamlin states that it was difficult to pass with – but they’re working on it, and they instantly fine him, but later everything is deemed as settled.

The next week, everybody had nothing but good things to say about the car and how fun it was, while at the same time there were privately a lot of unhappy people in the garage area who were not at liberty to discuss why specifically – but you can draw your own conclusions based on the general consensus regarding mentioning anything remotely critical of the sport to anybody with a microphone, camera, or notepad.

NASCAR needs to realize something, and it’s what fans know, and will tell anybody who will listen: This sport is successful and will grow for one reason and one reason only: the drivers, the fans’ access to them, and the actual product on the track and the television screen. The latter probably got a little too close with the graphic last lap accident at the Daytona Nationwide race in February, but it is the drivers and the personalities in the garage who will continue carry and grow this sport as they always have for the past 65 years.

With manufacturer identity hanging by a thread last season, did anybody really notice beside diehard Mopar fans that a Dodge won the title at Homestead and only Ralph Gilles was on hand to greet Keselowski afterwards? Of course not. What does everybody remember? Brad hammered, dominating a half-gallon of Miller Lite on SportsCenter, giving the best post-championship interview, ever, hands down, no use trying to find something better.

Gen 6 car? Looks better than the one before, but guess what? It’s still mainly stickers, the Charger was the most real of the four unveiled last year but is nowhere to be found, and you can’t race with it on a superspeedway — yet — just like with the CoT in 2007. This weekend however should be interesting with it at Kansas, with corner entry speeds expected to be in well in excess of 210mph – on a 1.5 mile track. That being said, I will be the first one Friday morning at MIS in June, parked down by Turn 1 to see these bastards wide open at 9500 rpm, hitting 220 mph.

With any luck, Paul Wolfe, Todd Gordon, Travis Geisler, and the rest of the gang will be back there with me by then too.

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