Saturday, April 27, 2013

NASCAR on the Warpath; Penske Teams and #20 Joe Gibbs Team Await Appeal

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NASCAR on the War Path

Two weeks in a row, NASCAR has found infractions by two of the sports’ top most successful teams resulting in severe penalties, who unless the driver’s name is Carl Long, appear unprecedented in recent NASCAR history. First, after Texas, they essentially levied the death penalty against team Penske particularly championship hopes for the #2 car. The #2 and #22 cars were slow out to the track as NASCAR did not like the rear end assemblies on how the suspension was mounted on the two Penske cars which would be deemed illegal equipment. Now after post race inspection in Kansas, race winner, Matt Kenseth’s car was found to have a slightly too light rocker arm assembly resulting in an even more vicious smack down against Joe Gibbs racing including the coach himself.

The sanctions against Team Penske, the #2 and #22 cars are: Each driver, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano are docked 25 points. Their crew chiefs Paul Wolfe and Todd Gordon are suspended for six points races and the Charlotte All-Star race plus each hit with $100,000 fines landing on probation until the end of the year. Team mangers and engineers for both teams are likewise suspended and on probation.

Penalties against the #20 team and owner, Joe Gibbs were far more harsh since the infraction involves the big three areas that NASCAR is most insistent on being precise – no engine, tire, or fuel violations. Matt Kenseth loses 50 driver points. Crew chief Jason Radcliff is suspended for seven races and fined $200,000. Owner, Joe Gibbs, NASCAR license is suspended for six races meaning no owner points will be accrued during that time period. Additionally, Kenseth’s win will not earn him 3 points toward the chase selection standings and his pole win won’t count toward next February’s shootout race in Daytona for pole winners.

The sanctions against Joe Gibbs and Matt Kenseth are most severe in that the one out of eight rocker arm assemblies found too light was not an issue of design or intent by anyone in Joe Gibbs racing nor does it provide any competitive advantage. The engines are furnished by Toyota Racing Development, who also supplies power for Michael Waltrip racing. The engines are shipped to Joe Gibbs Racing, fitted and installed in the race cars and at no point in the process would anyone in the Gibbs shop have any opportunity or need to tear down the engine. In the entire chain of custody of the motor in question, there is no point at which any Gibbs staff had any opportunity to tinker with the engine nor could one argue any intent on their part to run an illegal engine. Long gone are the days of the amazing Junior Johnson “mystery” engines. It’s hard for anyone with a sense of justice to see how this episode adds up for JGR unless they clearly failed to follow any appropriate due diligence expected of race teams preparing for their race.

The consequences of the Joe Gibbs penalties surely send chilling shockwaves through the garage area as only three competitive teams run their own engine programs: Hendricks, Roush, and Childress.  Hendricks supplies Stewart-Haas and Earnhardt/Ganassi; Roush supplies all Ford teams; Childress also supplies Furniture Row racing. Imagine this, suppose Penske’s car were in the championship chase and a similar infraction were noted on his car with an engine from Roush who’d also have a car in the chase. The whole ownership supply system could explode and the scandals would be unimaginable.

Both Penske and Gibbs will appeal their penalties but this puts NASCAR in another touchy situation. Last year in prerace inspection, NASCAR inspectors found the #48 Jimmie Johnson car noncompliant with aerodynamic specifications. The team was sanctioned with similar levies to that of the Penske infraction, crew chief, Chad Knaus would have been suspended for six races. A $100,000 fine was assessed and both driver and owner docked 25 points. Chad Knaus and car chief, Ron Malic, faced substantial probation. The appeal process stretched out until mid-March. The first round of appeal wouldn’t budge – the team remained penalized; however, on the second round of appeal, NASCAR’s chief appellate official, John Middlebrook, revoked the points deductions and suspensions leaving only the fines in place. John Middlebrook is a former General Motors executive contracted by NASCAR for $1.00 a year to serve as its top arbiter.

The buzz a year ago stirred up angry suspicions that it only seemed logical that a former GM officer might play favorites with the manufacturer’s flagship ride. The obvious appearance of possible conflict of interest was hard to ignore.

Suppose this year similar appeals considerations are not granted. The cars involved this year are Penske Fords, Penske who won the Championship last year, and Gibbs Toyotas. What would be the salient factors that would justify a different appeal tact with this year’s infractions particularly those of Joe Gibbs when TRD appears to be the culprit.

The integrity of NASCAR is on the line with how they handle these cases. They can’t issue harsh penalties without the expectation of their charges being just. The drivers and fans cannot accept even the slightest appearance of an arbitrary, vindictive, or partial judgment when infractions are cited. Penske team members didn’t like being in the garage adjacent to the Hendricks stable at Texas and feel they were “ratted” out. That much made the press. Of course would they do the same if the situation were reversed?  The presumption should be one would get caught regardless. The Joe Gibbs situation is far more complicated particularly given the coach’s good reputation. 

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