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NASCAR Goes Medieval On The Penske Teams

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, April 20 2013

Brad Keselowski still not thrilled with NASCAR officials and penalties. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

KANSAS CITY, Kan. – There’s a saying out there that goes something like: Some people are indispensable but nobody is irreplaceable. If Penske Racing loses its appeal of the penalties issued to the teams of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, that saying will be in for a major test when it comes to Sprint Cup teams.

A week ago at Texas Motor Speedway, NASCAR inspectors descended on the cars driven by Keselowski and Logano. The inspectors found that the rear suspension systems were illegal.

NASCAR officials ordered the cars back to the garages to change out the parts and pieces that they said – and Keselowski still denies – had not been approved for use.

Despite the pressures and potential ill effects of hasty changes, both drivers went on to finish in the top-10 in Fort Worth.

Still, Keselowski launched into a profanity-laced tirade. He directed his anger squarely at NASCAR for what happened at Texas and for the problems at Martinsville the week before, where his car was held up during inspection and then given a dubious pit-road penalty during the race.

“There’s so much stuff going on, you guys have no idea – you have no (expletive) idea what’s going on,” Keselowski told reporters after the Texas race. “I can tell you there is no team in this garage with the integrity of the 2 team. The way we’ve been treated over the last seven days is absolute shameful. I feel like we’ve been targeted over the last seven days more than I’ve ever seen a team targeted in my life.”

Joey Logano of Penske Racing. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

NASCAR opted to not penalize Keselowski for his outburst.

They did something potentially much worse. Something that could cost the Penske teams shots at the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship this year.

On Wednesday, NASCAR officials issued a series of penalties for the Texas equipment infractions. And they went after not just the usual suspects – drivers, car owners and the crew chiefs – as they went after car chiefs, the team manager and, most strikingly, team engineers. Went after them with six-race suspensions.

All those suspended are at Kansas Speedway this weekend as Penske has opted to appeal the penalties.

But when the appeals process runs its course, and if the suspensions take hold, the effects on the season could be dire.

Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson was asked Friday at Kansas how difficult things will be for the Penske cars if the suspensions are upheld. That is, he was asked how irreplaceable/indispensable engineers, car chiefs and crew chiefs are to success.

“That’s tough,” Johnson said. “Your depth chart really gets challenged at that point.

“Typically, your engineer would sit on the box and call the race if the crew chief was gone. So, what’s next? It’s going to be tough. Without a doubt, it’s going to be really hard for those guys to perform. I’m not saying that it’s impossible, and I do expect great things out of Penske. Roger has an awesome racing operation with a lot of smart people over there. It’s not going to be easy, but I think they’ll survive.”

But just subbing out bodies may not guarantee a continued level of performance, Johnson added.

“They have on their IndyCar staff a lot of great people,” Johnson, no stranger to the team penalty process and its effects, said. “It’s just like a driver coming into a car. “A very accomplished driver from another form of racing would be the same as an accomplished crew chief and/or engineer from another form of racing. You can get in the game. You can get close. But to win at this level, you’ve got to be so good. And it’s the last tenth or half a tenth that separates second from first. And that’s what you miss. That’s the part that will be missed if their suspensions go through.”

According to sources in the garages, NASCAR hauled teams into meetings earlier this year and laid down some laws. Debate was not on the meetings agenda.

Teams were told that, in effect, the Gen 6 cars were of critical importance to the sport. Criticism of the “new” cars would not be allowed. Working on perceived gray areas of the Gen 6 machinery would not be tolerated.

The penalties which were not specified by NASCAR earlier, were specified this week.

Driver Jeff Gordon was asked if he was surprised by the severity of the penalties.

“No,” the four-time Cup champion said Friday, “I think everybody was expecting it to be pretty harsh. I think an area that we all feel like this year is not an area that you want to have pieces that weren’t approved by NASCAR pushing those limits.”

In a way, the new way of dealing with the defiant in NASCAR is a throwback to the old way: The  way when Bill France Sr. and Bill France Jr. would call drivers, owners, whoever, into a private meeting during which it was explained to them just how dispensable they were to the sport.

To drive home key points of the meeting, the unrepentant suddenly found themselves in trouble during inspections.

A former driver who had a bit of a chip on his shoulder when he arrived in NASCAR during those days once told me that the meetings often began with one of the Frances coldly looking into the face of the offending party and saying, “Do you know who I am?”

The shoulder chip, this driver said, stayed in the NASCAR hauler after his meeting “Mr. France”.

It appears that when it comes to the new car, old methods of assuring obedience are being re-employed.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, April 20 2013
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