National Stock Car Racing Chief Appellate Officer John Middlebrook on Tuesday upheld the fines and points penalties against Penske Racing but reduced the suspensions of seven crew members from six to two NASCAR Sprint Cup points races — a stretch including the All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 18.
The Nos. 2 and 22 Penske Racing teams of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano were originally penalized after their Fords failed prerace inspection at Texas Motor Speedway on April 13. Officials discovered unapproved suspension systems and components.
NASCAR also cited the Penske cars’ “suspension fasteners and mounting hardware must be made of solid magnetic steel” and that the suspension mounts “hardware assembled must have single round mounting holes that are the correct size for the fastener being used” to keep the front and rear end suspension from “movement or realignment of any suspension component beyond component normal rotation or suspension travel."
Originally, the drivers were each penalized 25 points and Penske Racing lost 25 owner points for each team. In addition, the crew chiefs, car chiefs, team engineers and shared competition director were each suspended for six points races in addition to the All-Star Race.
Although Penske originally appealed the penalties and fines levied on both teams to the Panel on May 1, the three-person committee from the National Stock Car Racing Appeals Panel upheld NASCAR’s decision. Under Section 15 of the NASCAR rulebook, Penske was able to appeal again to Middlebrook.
"The process was fair and equitable," Penske said. "The most important thing is this is over."
Penske and Walt Czarnecki (owner of record on the No. 22 and executive vice president of Penske Racing) will both still be docked 25 championship owner points and Keselowski and Logano will each lose 25 championship driver points. Crew chiefs Paul Wolfe (Keselowski) and Todd Gordon (Logano) are penalized $100,000 and will serve suspensions through the Coca-Cola 600 on May 26. Both crew chiefs are on probation until Dec. 31.
Both teams’ car chiefs and team engineers as well as the organization’s director of competition Travis Geisler will serve suspensions of two points races and be on probation until Dec. 31.
"The key thing is to have our people back at the racetrack operating in full control,” Penske said. “To me that’s most important. If we’re going to win and be a leader and win the championship again, we have plenty of time to do that. So to me, I just want to move on. This has been a good process. I’ve learned a lot and I’m sure the team has.”
As to how the decision was made, Middlebrook offered a statement but did not take questions to offer insight into his process.
"After looking at all the facts and data and interpretations from the rulebook, I have decided to uphold the original fines and points penalties," the statement read. "However, (I) have decided to reduce the suspensions of the seven team members involved from six points races and the All-Star race to two points races and the All-Star race."
Penske says he “wasn’t confused” regarding the jargon in the rulebook regarding the suspension assembly but rather that the team was working in areas that were “undefined.”
“Obviously, with all the innovations, I can tell you that the NASCAR rulebook is thicker this year than it was last year, I think because we have some great guys in the garage that are innovating and that’s the business we’re in," he said.
He raised the point that in order to keep up with the competition, teams need to be innovative and find areas not restricted in which to work.
It’s a process that will not be deterred by this penalty.
“This is an innovative sport and I can tell you that the other 42 cars that are out there are innovating every day,” Penske said. “We’re going to continue to look at areas we can work in which we feel are within the rulebook, obviously, I don’t want to get to the edge. Maybe NASCAR felt we were in this particular situation. But we have to be competitive in order to win and there are some very creative guys that we meet every Sunday in NASCAR."
When it comes to teams pushing the envelope in the gray areas, NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp said, “we made it clear last season that the science project had gone far enough.”
NASCAR, for its part, hopes this outcome will make teams think twice while working in the grey area.
“The teams are some of the biggest enforcers that are out there," Tharp said. This is a strong reaction on our part when we accessed these penalties coming out of Texas – a strong reaction.”
Penske said that the argued infraction was a result of that innovation needed to keep up with the competition.
“In the end, after consideration by John Middlebrook, the chief appellate officer, he felt that the fines and penalties were overreaching and made the decision to reduce them,” Penske said. “Obviously, I’m very happy with the outcome. As you know, this sport is built on innovation and all of us are trying to innovate in areas that are not defined in the rulebook. We were in that area.
“To me, at this particular time, we’ll go to the track at Darlington without our key members, obviously, we have a real strong bench and these folks will be at the track. We’ll make the announcement later in the week.”
Two names mentioned as possible crew chief replacements are Greg Erwin, crew chief for Sam Hornish and Kevin Buskirk.
Penske said that if the original panel had reached a similar conclusion, he would not have taken his appeal to the final level. Last week, the three-man panel heard Penske Racing’s arguments followed by NASCAR’s reasoning and then made a decision. On Tuesday, however, there was an open discussion between the team, Sprint Cup Series Director John Darby and Middlebrook.
“Today we had the opportunity to meet with the chief appellate officer and we had that opportunity in conjunction with NASCAR’s John Darby,” Penske said. “He was very open and frank. This, quite honestly, was the first time we had the opportunity to listen to John specifically to say these are the areas that we think you’re over the line on.
“Obviously, we had our rebuttal on that and of course the appellate officer had the chance to take into consideration all the comments that we made and NASCAR (made) and came up with the final ruling. To me, I think shows both sides had some skin in the game. I think the process is good. The panel — that was the first step. You don’t go to the Supreme Court on the first day. We operated within the guidelines and quite honestly, I’m happy with the outcome.”