Monday, April 29, 2013

Penalties, Appeals and Fairness

Jason Ratcliff (R) may have to take one for the team
The penalties have been handed out.  The debates have been ongoing.  Now the appeal process is about to begin. 

The penalties against Roger Penske Racing for unapproved parts will be up for review  on Wednesday.  Those against Joe Gibbs Racing for having a lightweight connecting rod will be heard May 8.  Both hearings present unique challenges for NASCAR’s appeal process.  But the process also provides the organization an opportunity to take a step back and bring a little common sense and fairness to the situation.

Penske first.  Not only were both crew chiefs fined $100,000 and suspended for six Cup points races, the car chiefs, race engineers and the team manager overseeing both cars also were suspended for six races.  Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano were both docked 25 championship points and each car lost 25 owner points.

The team was admittedly working in a “gray” area.  A gray area aimed at enhancing the performance of the cars.  While everyone on the Penske team insists the parts themselves were approved, the question is how they were being used.

Penske Racing says the situation is similar to one Hendrick Motorsports faced last year at Daytona, when the No. 48 car was penalized for a C Pillar that didn’t “look right.”  Talk about a gray area.  In that case, the penalties, including fines, loss of points and suspensions, were initially upheld by the three person appeals panel.  However, they were subsequently overturned (except for the fines), when it was bucked up to the court of last resort, John Middlebrook, NASCAR’s chief appellate officer.  It wouldn’t surprise anyone if the Penske Racing penalties also are upheld by the appeals panel and then appealed to Middlebrook.  And that’s where things will get interesting and more than a little uncomfortable for NASCAR.

Middlebrook, is a former General Motors sales and racing executive and a longtime friend of Hendrick, who of course races Chevrolets and has a number of GM dealerships.  Middlebrook also has a history of dialing back penalties that reach his desk.  The conspiracy theorists are going to have a field-day if the Penske/Ford fines are allowed to stand.  And looming over everything is Keselowski’s threat to tell all if the process goes against his team.

So what’s “fair” in the case of Penske Racing vs. NASCAR?  Penske was no doubt pushing the limits, that seems more back-and-white than gray.  The fines and loss of points stay in place.  The crew chiefs are suspended.  But the suspensions of the car chiefs, race engineers and team manager seem extreme and should be lifted. 

In the case of JGR vs. NASCAR, the fines and suspensions handed down seem to be – in the words of normally mild-mannered Matt Kenseth – “grossly unfair” and “borderline shameful.”  How can NASCAR penalize a team so severely when the mistake was admittedly made by the manufacturer – Toyota – and is one that everyone seems to agree provided no competitive advantage.

As long as we’re trying to be fair, let’s start with NASCAR.  It’s in a tough situation.  As Robin Pemberton noted, it’s hard to penalize a manufacturer.

“It's very difficult to go to an outside vendor and penalize them whether its springs or shocks or parts that are bought and bolted on race cars,” said NASCAR's vice president of competition.  “That's why in today's world we all know and relate to the fact that it stops at the crew chief and stops at the owner and stops at the organization that is here to compete.”

The same situation happens all the time in the auto industry.  Earlier in the month, Toyota, Honda and Nissan were forced to recall 3.4 million passenger cars because of a problem with the airbag.  A vendor, Takata, actually made the airbags and supplied them to all three companies, but the manufacturers were held responsible for recalling and repairing the vehicles.

It’s also hard to penalize a manufacturer that pours hundreds of millions of dollars into the sport (and that includes GM and Ford).

And let’s not forget, JGR management made the decision to shut down the team's Cup engine program and begin getting engines from TRD.  Now they have to pay the price for that decision.

No, the problem isn’t with who was penalized.  The problem is with the severity of the penalties, given there was obviously no intent or performance benefit.  A little common sense should prevail here.

So where is the middle ground?  Once again, take away the points and the bonuses for winning the pole and the race.  Let the fines stand, which Toyota has already indicated it will probably pay.  But the suspensions need to be adjusted.

Crew chief Jason Ratcliff has to take one for the team.  He understands that. “We’re responsible for this race car from the time we get to the race track until the time we get through post-race inspection,” he said in Richmond.  “As a crew chief you accept that responsibility.”  But how about cutting the six race suspension in half, making it three races.  Come on NASCAR, go the extra yard. 

And who in the world thought suspending Joe Gibbs was the right thing to do?  The guy holds prayer circles for his team after races.   That one is unfair and shameful.  Throw it out altogether.

Finally, a rescinded penalty in Saturday night’s Richmond race may have a future impact on penalties handed out during the course of an event.  Initially Kyle Busch was penalized for missing the entry onto pit road.  After Busch protested, NASCAR seemed to change its mind several times and the caution was extended, before finally agreeing with the driver. 

Which leads to the question: Are NASCAR’s in-race penalties now open for appeal?

Monday, April 22, 2013

Penske's Best: Donohue, Mears and...Keselowski (!?!)

There it was in a story by Jim Pedley of (link below), covering the trials and tribulations of Penske Racing at Kansas this past weekend.

Most stories from Kansas carried reports on Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and the team.  They had dominated racing news the previous week and then had an eventful race.  Most quoted Keselowski and Logano.

Pedley dug deeper, talking afterward to Walt Czarnecki, team vice president and Penske’s longtime right hand man.  Czarnecki was in Kansas watching over the team while Penske was in Long Beach, Calif., for the IndyCar race.

It was a good story.  But the lede was buried.  Near the end of the article, in the 25th of 27 paragraphs to be exact, Czarnecki talked about Keselwoski’s ability to focus on the race with everything else swirling around.  This quote jumped out at me.

Mark Donohue
“Roger and I have been together for 40 years,” Pedley quoted Czarnecki as saying. “And I would say (Keselowski) ranks right there with Mark Donohue and Rick Mears. Rick was one of those guys, too, early in his career where he could be a lap down and he’d say, ‘OK, keep working on it, we’re going to keep getting it better, keep getting it better.’ He just always kept his head. And Brad keeps his head.”


Perhaps it was the euphoria of the moment.  It was an impressive performance by Keselowski and the entire Penske team.  Remarkable really.  Czarnecki said it was one of the top three or four performances ever by the team.

Note that Czarnecki put Keselowski on a par with two IndyCar champions.  Not NASCAR Hall-of-Famers Bobby Allison and Rusty Wallace who also drove for Penske Racing.  Not the other IndyCar drivers who ran for Penske (and Czarnecki) and apparently don’t rise to the Donohue/Mears/Keselowski level, including, oh, Mario Andretti, Bobby Unser, Al Unser, Al Unser, Jr., Tom Sneva, Danny Sullivan, Emerson Fittipaldi, Paul Tracy, Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves.

Nope, Czarnecki said Mark Donohue and Rick Mears.  
Rick Mears

You could make an argument that Donohue, a graduate from Brown University with a degree in mechanical engineering, was the smartest, most focused racing driver – ever.  He co-wrote a book about it, called The Unfair Advantage.  He joined Penske in 1966, shortly after Roger gave up driving and started entering race cars.  He won Penske Racing’s first NASCAR race, at Riverside in 1973, but was really a road racer, winning and often dominating the United States Road Racing Championship, Trans-Am and Can-Am, titles.  He also won Penske’s first Indy 500 in 1972.  He died following an accident in a Penske-owned grand prix car in 1975.

A list of the Top 10 America drivers of all-time would have Mears on it.  He has a record-sharing four Indy 500s victories (long with A. J. Foyt and Al Unser) and came within 0.16 of a second of winning a fifth.  He has more Indy 500 pole positions than any other driver and is a three-time IndyCar series champion.  He retired at 41 in 1992 and is still a part of Penske Racing as a driver's coach.  He's also the uncle of NASCAR regular Casey Mears.

So when Czarnecki compares Keselowski to Donohue and Mears, that's saying something.  Ok, he wasn't putting Keselowski on the same level as a racing driver (at least I hope not, not yet), but to be compared to those drivers on any level is quite a compliment.

Readers of my blog know that I like Keselowski – a lot.  He is certainly one of the best stock car drivers today and his candor and freshness may help save this sport, if NASCAR lets him.

But Donohue and Mears?!? 

Hey, who am I to argue?  What do you think?

The Races:  If you saw the Las Vegas Sprint Cup race you saw the Kansas race, Matt Kenseth holding off a closing Kasey Kahne for the win.  The biggest story: Matt Kenseth was the third straight driver to win from the pole, which hasn’t happened since 1985.  If Kenseth continues to dominate on the mile-and-a-half tracks, it could be a long year for the competition…Any NASCAR driver in need of a tutorial on blocking should watch a replay of the Bahrain Formula One race.  If it wasn’t for the dramatic blocking moves throughout, beginning with the first turn of the first lap, it wouldn’t have been much of a race either.  Sebastian Vettel won, moving past Jackie Stewart on the all-time F1 winner’s list with 28…Takuma Sato got his first IndyCar win at Long Beach and the gave A. J. Foyt Racing its first win since 2002.  Sato ran well at Long Beach last year and then made a real impression in the Indianapolis 500 when he crashed trying to pass Dario Franchitti for the lead on the last lap.  But then he crashed more often than not the rest of the year.  He appears to be for real this year – and is helping to restore Foyt's team.  Foyt himself missed the race, slated for back surgery this week.


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Tattling a Way of Life in NASCAR

Everything is on display in the NASCAR garage
“No one likes a tattle-tell,” my dad would tell me, usually after punishing my brother or sister for some misdemeanor I had ratted them out on.  Now I find myself telling my grandkids the same thing. 

One of the stories coming out of Texas this week concerns the possibility that teams from Hendrick Motorsports, situated in the garage-area alongside the cars of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, tattled on the Penske teams to NASCAR officials after noticing some peculiar rear end parts. 

NASCAR confiscated the parts and forced changes to the cars prior to the race.  And on Wednesday it came down hard on Penske Racing.  Keselowski crew chief Paul Wolfe was fined $100,000 and suspended for the next six points races and the All-Star race.   In addition, car chief Jerry Kelly, team engineer Brian Wilson and team manager Travis Geisler received the same suspension.  Logano crew chief Todd Gordon received the same fine and suspension as Wolfe and car chief Raymond Fox and team engineer Samuel Stanley were also suspended.  Keselowski and Logano are docked 25 championship points and the cars 25 championship points. 

Ouch.  That’s gonna hurt.  Not even Penske Racing is so deep that the loss of the top three people responsible for a car won’t be felt on race day.  Penske has appealed the penalties, but don’t hold your breath. 

So what of Hendrick Motorsports?  Are they tattle-tells?  Squealers?  Rats?  No way.  Not in NASCAR.  In fact, it’s designed to work that way.  Self-policing they call it.

A while back I had an opportunity to interview Humpy Wheeler for a book on the 1964 Indy 500.  Long before becoming President of Charlotte Motor Speedway and one of the best promoters in the sport, Wheeler worked in public relations for Firestone and attended the 500 for the first time in ‘64.   I asked him what surprised him most about the Speedway and he quickly responded “Gasoline Alley.”  The whole concept of a private garages where a team could lock the door and work on its car in secrecy was new to Wheeler, who was used to the wide-open spaces of NASCAR garages.

“I thought Holy Cow, there is no way the (USAC) officials can possibly keep up with what is going on with these cars when the doors are closed,” Wheeler said.  “In NASCAR, most of the cheating wasn’t caught by the inspectors, but by one competitor tipping off an official that so-and-so was doing something wrong.  I couldn’t help wondering how anyone kept the (Indy) mechanics from cheating.”

Ironically, it was Keselowski who last year called out Hendrick Motorsports in general – and the No. 48 team of Jimmie Johnson in particular – for pushing the limit on rear end configuration.  So there’s a little bit a payback involved here. 

But more than anything else, it's simply a way of life in the NASCAR garage.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Keselowski’s Kim Jong-un Problem

When Brad Keselowski meets President Obama on Tuesday to be honored as NASCAR’s 2012 Sprint Cup champion, he might want to ask the leader of the free world how he goes about handling North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.

While Obama is dealing with Jong-un, a grandson trying desperately to consolidate his power, Keselowski has his own Jong-un problem.  His name is Brian France.  And while France’s arsenal doesn’t include nuclear weapons or missiles, he can certainly do plenty of damage to Keselowski and Roger Penske Racing.

In the days after Keselowski captured the title last year at Homestead, many wondered aloud if NASCAR would allow Brad to be Brad.   He had proven to be refreshingly opinionated, honest and outspoken during the season and it carried through a sometimes raucous title celebration.  By the time the victory tour reached NASCAR’s season-sending banquet in Las Vegas, people were no longer wondering -- they were pleading. 

Please let Brad be Brad.  For a sport in need of some new blood and excitement, Keselowski was both.

The honeymoon didn’t last long, however.   Not even to the first race of the 2013 season.  Just a few days before the Daytona 500, Keselowski showed up on the front page of USA Today with a critique of what ails NASCAR.  His comments were spot on.  But those concerning NASCAR’s leadership hit a little too close to home.

"The problem I see in the sport is that there are multiple entities that have to work together for us to be successful,” he told the paper's Nate Ryan.  “We have sponsors — partners, or whatever the hell you want to call them — tracks, the sanctioning body and the teams. Those are our four groups, and how well they cooperate dictates what we have as a product for our fans. And our fans create everything.”

Then Keselowski got personal.

“When Bill France Jr. was in charge of NASCAR, he had control of all these pieces and wasn't at the mercy of the TV world. He had control of the tracks and NASCAR, which is now divided in two with Lesa (France Kennedy, president of International Speedway Corp. that controls 12 tracks) and (NASCAR Chairman) Brian (France). France Jr. had relationships with the sponsors, drivers and teams. Now we don't have that. Those three other pieces are segregated. Those three pieces need to get together. And until all three of those can unite, we're a house divided, and we're making bad decisions that are affecting how to generate revenue for the sport.”

NASCAR’s leadership exploded.  Keselowski was called in for a scolding.  Can’t help but wonder what would have happened had that discussion come earlier, not later.

Afterwards Keselowski said all the right things, about how he didn’t realize how committed Lisa and Brian are to the sport.  But he also warned he would continue to speak out and he has.

Since then things have gone south between Keselowski, Penske Racing and NASCAR.  The Penske cars have come in for added scrutiny during the inspection process.  At Martinsville, Keselowski’s car was held in tech inspection and nearly missed qualifying.  Then just as he moved into contention during the race, he was forced to realign his car in his pit box, an official saying the car's tire was over the line, although replays showed there was clearly space between his tire and the white line. 

It went from bad to worse at Texas, where both Penske cars were held in pre-race inspection.  Rear end parts “not in the spirit of the rules” according to NASCAR were confiscated and the team forced to make significant changes to the car.  Keselowski was able to make it to the grid in time for the start, but teammate Joey Logano was forced to start from the back of the field.  Keselowski came home ninth, but it was apparent the 500 miles had done nothing to cool him off.

"I have one good thing to say.  That's my team and effort they put in today in fighting back with the absolute bullshit that's been the last seven days in this garage area. The things I've seen over the last seven days have me questioning everything that I believe in, and I'm not happy about it. I don't have anything positive to say and I probably should just leave it at that."

Of course he couldn’t.  Brad was being Brad.

"There's so much stuff going on,” he said to reporters, “you have no fucking idea what's going on.  And that's not your fault.  That's not a slam on you. I could tell you there's nobody, no team in this garage with the integrity of the (No.) 2 team. And the way we've been treated over the last seven days is absolutely shameful. I feel like we've been targeted over the last seven days more than I've ever seen a team targeted. But my guys kept their heads on straight and they showcased why they are a winning team and championship team. We're not going to take it. We're not going to be treated this way.”

Ironically, it was Keselowski who first went public with the rear end story near the end of last year when he called out the No. 48 for stretching the rules.  Someone asked if Keselowski was worried suspensions.

“I'm very worried about losing my crew chief, Paul Wolfe, but I tell you I've got one of best owners in the garage and I'm going to be first one at his desk telling him if anything happens like that we'll both be in a meeting with anybody and everybody who'll listen. There's been so much stuff going on I could make a list two pages long, but go ahead throw that one on there. I'm out.”

So are France and NASCAR targeting the Roger Penske team?  It doesn’t matter.  Keselowski thinks they are and now it’s in his head. 

Tuesday should be an interesting day.  Not only will Keselowski, Wolfe and Roger Penske be meeting the President (along with NASCAR executives), that’s the day fines and suspension s are normally handed down.  Fines and suspension are usually handed out for NASCAR on Tuesday.

Could make Congressional infighting look tame by comparison. 

Monday, April 8, 2013

Kenseth, Roush, Headed in Different Directions?

Kenseth with new teammates Martin and Hamlin
For a while during Sunday’s race at Martinsville, Matt Kenseth was in first place and the three cars of Roush Fenway Racing, his former team, were either a lap down or close to going a lap down.  Things changed before the end of the race with Greg Biffle coming back for a 9th place finish, Kenseth 14th and Carl Edwards 15th, but while it lasted, it was an interesting demonstration how Kenseth and his former team might be headed in different directions.

Kenseth was one of the few drivers who passed eventual winner Jimmie Johnson on the track and went on to lead for 96 laps.  In the past Kenseth has made no secret of his dislike for Martinsville.  But maybe it was the car and not the driver.  His success in his first Martinsville race driving for Joe Gibbs Racings didn’t go unnoticed by Johnson, who said he thought at one point Kenseth would win the race.  And when Denny Hamlin called the win by Johnson too easy – implying it would have been harder with him in the race – crew chief Chad Knaus responded with a backhanded slap at the Roush Fords.

“I think it’s pretty obvious that it’s not Denny, it’s the Gibbs cars,” Knaus said.  “I think it’s more car than driver here for that team.  Look at Matt Kenseth.  He couldn’t get out of his own way when he was in a Roush car here. He went out today and was making it happen.”

While Roush clearly remains the lead Ford team, they’ve been outrun at every race this year, except Phoenix, by the Fords of Roger Penske and on occasion even by those of Richard Petty Racing.  That was true at Martinsville where Marcos Ambrose was second fastest qualifier and despite being caught up in the early wreck, finished ahead of the Roush cars.    

It’s too early to draw any real conclusions about Roush and how the loss of Kenseth has hurt the team.  Both Biffle and Edwards are currently ahead of Kenseth in points, but that’s mainly because Kenseth had engine problems at Daytona and was crashed out of Bristol while leading when Jeff Gordon blew a tire.  Rookie Ricky Stenhouse is back in 15th, driving Kenseth’s old No. 17.  Not bad for a rookie, but not what many were expecting from the two-time Nationwide champ making the jump to Cup.

But it is something to watch Saturday night in Texas.  The Roush cars have always run well there, as they do on most intermediate tracks, with Biffle winning the spring race last year and all three Roush cars finishing in the top 10.  It will be important for the team to post a good showing this year and an indicator to watch for the rest of the year.

The Races:  A good Martinsville crowd watched Johnson lead for most of the race, but he didn’t totally dominate as he has in the past – Kenseth, Gordon, Clint Bowyer and Kyle Busch all appearing to be his equal at times.  The best drive belonged to Danica Patrick (although I could have done without the announcers constantly telling me that).  After going two laps down early, Patrick took advantage of some good pit strategy and then raced her way to a 12th place finish.  She was also perhaps the first 12th place finisher ever to be brought into the press room after the race, an honor (?) normally afforded only the top three finishers…NASCAR’s future was on display in Saturday’s Craftsman Truck Series race.  While Johnny Sauter, at the ripe old age of 31, won his second straight race and teammate Matt Crafton was second, they were followed by Jeb Burton (21) in third after setting a new track record in qualifying on the pole; Darrell Wallace, Jr. (19) in fifth; Chase Elliott (17) in sixth; Dakoda Armstrong (21) in seventh and Erik Jones (16) in ninth.  Missing was Ryan Truex (21), who broke his collarbone when he fell off a motorcycle on Easter Sunday…Defending champion Ryan Hunter-Reay won the second IndyCar event of the year at Barber Motorsport Park outside Birmingham, Ala.  The win was the second straight for Michael Andretti’s team and combined with last year’s title, further establishes his team on a par with those of  Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi.  The race also marked the return of A. J. Allmendinger.  Dinger surprised many by qualifying and running in the top 10, before stalling his car in the pits and finishing 19th.  It was also announced he will race for Roger Penske in Detroit the week after the Indy 500, along with previously announced rides at Long Beach and Indy.    

Monday, April 1, 2013

Strange Bedfellows at JGR

Brian Vickers
There must be something about Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) that makes for strange bedfellows.

It’s now apparent there was no love between teammates when Joey Logano was at JGR along with Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin.  A war of words – tweets really – erupted between Logano and Hamlin following this year’s Daytona 500 and eventually led to crashing and bashing between the two at Bristol and then California, with Hamlin getting the worst of it.  As a result, Hamlin will be watching for the next five weeks while recovering from a broken back after he tangled with Logano at Cali.

With Hamlin sidelined, JGR turned first to Mark Martin to drive the No. 11 FedEx car in his place.  In fact, Martin will be in the car this weekend at Martinsville.  But a plan for him to run the rest of the races Hamlin will miss was quashed by Martin’s regular sponsor at Michael Waltrip Racing.  Maybe it was all those commercials Aaron’s has paid for starring Martin.  Hmmm.  Go figure.  Anyway, Martin will back in the Aaron’s car after Martinsville.

That moved Brian Vickers into the seat.  Vickers drives for JGR on the Nationwide circuit and has been a Toyota driver since the manufacturer entered Sprint Cup.

Here’s where it gets interesting.  Vickers has a history with another of JGR’s Cup drivers, Matt Kenseth, who joined the team this year.  But back in 2011, Vickers was driving for Red Bull and Kenseth for Jack Roush. 

The drivers ran into each other at the Martinsville fall race.  Many times.  Kenseth, who was within striking distance of the championship leader Carl Edwards at the time, got frustrated trying to pass Vickers and eventually spun him.  Vickers vowed revenge and got it later at Phoenix, dumping Kenseth late in the race and basically ending any hope Kenseth had the Sprint Cup title.

Here’s what Kenseth said at the time.

"When we had our problem at Martinsville, it was heat of the moment and he hit me eight or nine times and [I hit him] once.  Hindsight, I should have let him go and left him alone, because you realize who he is and what he is and all that ... I would never sit down there and wait for somebody and take a cheap shot like that. You can hurt someone like that, and that isn't sportsmanlike and that isn't something I would do."

Both drivers now say the past is past.  Here’s Vickers in a recent interview with ESPN.

"That definitely wasn't one of my prouder moments. It's kind of like what happened at the end of last year with Jeff and Clint. There's usually something else bothering you that leads to it. I just had a lot of frustration with things happening.”

We'll see.  Being teammates doesn't necessarily mean nothing will happen.  Ask Kenseth about Edwards.  Ask Jimmie Johnson about Vickers.

We'll see.