KANSAS CITY, KS. - Clint Bowyer seems to think it's a pretty open and shut case. Jimmie Johnson, now rounding in as Brad Keselowski's chief garage area rival, says his team didn't report Penske Racing to NASCAR officials.
Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano both think they've been unfairly taken to NASCAR's proverbial woodshed.
Meanwhile, NASCAR has stayed mum, letting the appeal process take shape.
That's the state of NASCAR's most recent garage area controversy that erupted in the waning moments before last Saturday night's Sprint Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway. Keselowski and Logano watched helplessly as NASCAR officials forced the Penske teams to replace a newly designed rear end suspension configuration on both cars. Both made it to starting grid, where they were forced to start in the back, just moments before the race began. Afterwards, Keselowski erupted with a flurry of comments detailing how disappointed he was in NASCAR and other teams in the garage area.
"The way we've been treated over the last seven days is absolutely shameful," Keselowski said after salvaging a ninth-place finish at Texas. "I feel like we've been targeted over the last seven days more than I've ever seen a team targeted in my life."
Now at Kansas, Penske is reeling from more of NASCAR's backlash from the Texas pre-race violations. NASCAR leveled hefty penalties on the team Wednesday, suspending for six races the crew chiefs, car chiefs and engineers for both Keselowski and Logano, as well as Penske Racing team manager Travis Geisler. The sheer quantity of the suspensions, in addition to points and money penalties, are the harshest NASCAR has ever leveled for competition infractions.
Penske Racing immediately filed a notice of appeal to NASCAR, and was granted clearance to continue operating as normal until that process plays out. NASCAR's level of disciplinary action is a high concern for the team, but it's the entire situation that has Keselowski still peeved.
The 2012 series champion had no scheduled media availability at Kansas, but did address the situation after his qualifying lap Friday. He was hesitant to address specifics.
"I'm thankful that there is a process for appeals because, obviously, we're in an 'agree to disagree' stage between Penske Racing and NASCAR, and there's thankfully a third panel or group to settle those disagreements."
Keselowski was under the impression NASCAR had approved the parts they later confiscated, and aired concerns about what actually is and isn't cheating in NASCAR.
"I think it's pretty obvious that defining cheating in this sport is something that's been very poorly done, and I think (the media) are the ones that need to step back and try to figure out how to define that better because, clearly, this garage is having a hard time doing that," Keselowski said.
The rivalry between Johnson and Keselowski has risen to the surface in the past year. Little things, like Keselowski publicly noting a difference in the setup that Johnson and his three Hendrick Motorsports teammates raced last summer and Johnson chiding Keselowski for being a bit too vociferous in comments about the sport in February, have started to paint a picture of personal competition between the two. The two dueled most of the way through last year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship fight, including a memorable side-by-side contest at Texas last fall.
Friday at Kansas, Johnson flatly denied his team had any part in notifying NASCAR to Penske's new rear-end configuration.
"Everybody has people watching," Johnson said. "We have been very impressed with the No. 2 car's staff and their ability to have somebody just stand and watch other teams."
Keselowski said that the penalty his team faces felt similar to penalties originally assessed to Johnson's team early last season at Daytona. After Hendrick Motorsports appealed and said the No. 48 car hadn't changed since a previous NASCAR inspection, crew chief and car chief suspensions were dropped. The $100,000 fine remained.
"Yeah, I think there's definitely some similarities," Keselowski said. "I'm not saying it's an identical situation, but there are definitely some similarities, yes."
A key difference may be that Hendrick proved that NASCAR had seen its car before the 2012 Daytona inspection, and ruled it legal. NASCAR has a process that mandates all new suspension system pieces must be submitted to NASCAR's competition administrator for approval. In Penske's case, it is unclear if the team had previously submitted the pieces in question.
"We never raced those pieces before," Logano said. "That was the first time we ever brought anything like that to the track."
Working in the rear end area that Penske Racing was penalized for didn't surprise any competitors. With NASCAR's new car design, rear end specifications have been tightened from recent years and prevented the "crab walk" look some cars had while driving in a straight line. Having a rear end skewed more to the right than the front wheels produced notable corner handling improvements.
"It's pretty helpful when those things are skewed out, we've learned. If you can possibly get them skewed our any further, things are happy, happy, happy," Bowyer said.
The Penske crew chiefs, car chiefs and engineers would all be replaceable should the suspensions stand, but at a cost.
"You can get in the game. You can get close," Johnson said. "But to win at this level, you've got to be so good. It's that last tenth (of a second) 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."
Johnson and teammate Jeff Gordon went through a similar process in 2007 when both lost crew chiefs and car chiefs for six races after opening inspection penalties at Sonoma Raceway. Hendrick initially appealed the ruling, but opted to drop it less than a week later. Still, the appeal process can also be a strategic one.
"It takes time to manage the people so you don't lose more than you've already lost from a performance standpoint," Gordon said. "They might feel like they feel like they have a very strong case. I don't know.
"When we felt like we had a strong case and we were wronged, we appealed and we fought to the fullest extent. If we feel like we were in the wrong, we usually appeal if there's a suspension just to try to work personnel out and give us a little bit of time there to work on those details."
All indications are that Penske's appeal isn't a strategic play. Instead, it's about what actually is and what actually isn't cheating in today's tightly controlled NASCAR rulebook.
"Let's go back to what I said earlier," Keselowski said before exiting his interview. "(We) agree to disagree."
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