|Jason Ratcliff (R) may have to take one for the team|
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?