Saturday Kansas Notebook: Are Penske teams likely to benefit from NASCAR's appeal process?
By: By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service, Superior Telegram
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Facing six-figure fines and an unprecedented loss of personnel, Penske Racing is hoping to get relief through an appeals process open to all competitors penalized by NASCAR for rules violations.
Those who might believe that the National Stock Car Racing Appeals Panel is merely a rubber stamp for the sanctioning body's rulings don't have very long memories.
Just last year, for violations discovered before the season-opening Daytona 500, NASCAR severely penalized the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team of five-time champion Jimmie Johnson for unapproved modifications to the "C" posts on Johnson's Chevrolet.
Owner Rick Hendrick appealed the $100,000 fine to crew chief Chad Knaus, six-week suspensions to Knaus and carchief Ron Malec and the loss of driver and owner points. The panel denied Hendrick's original appeal, but Hendrick took the case to National Stock Car Racing Chief Appellate Officer John Middlebrook, who overturned everything but the $100,000 fine.
Should Penske Racing look to the successful Hendrick appeal as a source of hope? Do the cases feature important similarities? That depends on whom you ask.
Both Penske Sprint Cup teams—the No. 2 of reigning series champion Brad Keselowski and the No. 22 of Joey Logano—were penalized for unapproved parts relating to the rear axle housing assembly. The ostensible purpose of the Penske modifications was to increase the yaw factor (or skew) of the rear axle to provide more grip and enhanced ability to turn through the corners.
After confiscating the rear housings before last Saturday's Cup race at Texas, NASCAR lowered the boom on the Penkse teams on Wednesday. Crew chiefs Paul Wolfe (No. 2) and Todd Gordon (No. 22) drew $100,000 fines and suspensions for six Cup points races as well as the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race in May.
Six-week suspensions were meted out to the car chiefs and race engineers of each car, as well to Penske team manager Travis Geisler. Keselowski and Logano lost 25 championship points each. Roger Penske (No. 2) and Walt Czarnecki (No. 22) were docked 25 owner points each.
Penske immediately announced its intention to appeal. Johnson, for one, thinks there are important differences between the Hendrick case that was reversed on appeal and Penske violations.
"I think it's different," Johnson told the NASCAR Wire Service. "I don't think there was a measurement given (in the case of the No. 48 car). It wasn't something that we ... It was more of a didn't-look-right situation, where this, from what I gather, has far more specific implications—machined pieces, mechanical pieces that are different.
"When we had our troubles, it didn't look right. I don't think this (Penske) was right. I think that's where the separation is."
Indeed, the problem with the "C" posts was identified before the car had been submitted for opening-day inspection, and that was an issue raised by Hendrick at the appeal. The offending parts, which were modified to produce an aerodynamic advantage, were confiscated.
The Penske infractions were discovered on race day, after the cars had already practiced and qualified the day before. Nevertheless, Keselowski sees similarities in the situations.
"Yeah, I think there's definitely some similarities," Keselowski told the NASCAR Wire Service after Cup qualifying on Friday. "I'm not going to say it's an identical situation, but there are definitely some similarities, yes."
And there are differences. The Hendrick infractions involved modifications to a car that had been developed and refined for more than five years.
The Penske violations occurred on a Gen-6 car in the early stages of development—and in an area, the rear axle, NASCAR has indicated is particularly sensitive, so much so that the sanctioning body rewrote its axle rule (in terms of degree of skew) approximately halfway through the 2012 season and tried to curtail the use of the rear sway bar to move the axle while the car is in motion.
On the Gen-6 car, the rear sway bar is gone, except at road courses, a clear indication that, to NASCAR, the rear end of the Gen-6 car is as sacrosanct as the body was with its predecessor, the Gen-5.
Keselowski said Friday he thought the parts in question had been approved. However, NASCAR rules state that an entire assembly must be submitted for approval as a unit, not just the individual parts.
Keselowski and the Penske organization hope there are enough similarities between the Hendrick and Penske cases to give the appeal legs.
Even if the appeal fails, however, the process—especially if escalated to the chief appellate officer—will give Penske time to realign personnel before key people begin serving their suspensions.
FAST ALL WEEK
Fresh from a second-place finish at Texas, Martin Truex Jr. remained fast during on-track activities leading up to Sunday's STP 400 at Kansas Speedway, where Truex was the runner-up in both NASCAR Sprint Cup races last year.
Truex led at Texas when caution slowed the race with 20 laps left. He lost the top spot to race winner Kyle Busch on pit road, but there may have been more to the outcome than merely Busch's ability to run away in clean air.
A broken left front shock changed the handling of his car and hurt Truex's performance over the final green-flag run.
"As far as what we can tell, the shock broke in the last 20 laps, because the left front tire drooped out on the pit stop like it was supposed to, and after the race, the left front shock was completely seized up," Truex said. "They couldn't move it at all.
"And so it was definitely something that hurt us. I think the last 20 laps of the race was the first time all day I'd been tight. The car didn't handle like it had all day. It's like 'Seriously?' We get beat off pit road, and the car gets tight out of nowhere."
To make matters worse, the broken shock led to a low ride height on the left front, which in turn led to a NASCAR penalty. Crew chief Chad Johnston was fined $25,000, and Truex lost six championship points. Johnston also was placed on probation and Michael Waltrip was docked six owner points.
Truex was philosophical when he spoke to the NASCAR Wire Service about the penalty on Friday.
"It is what it is, six points, and we'll move on and go racing," Truex said. "I said last week that I'm not worried about points anymore. I'm tired of waking up on Monday morning and looking at points, or Sunday night when I get home. It wears you out.
"So we're just going to go racing, we're going to have fun, we're going to try to win races and try to finish off what we started last week."
Toward that end, Truex is off to a good start. He qualified seventh on Friday and was sixth and seventh fastest in race trim, respectively, in Saturday's two Cup practice sessions.