COMMENTARY | There are some major issues surrounding Penske Racing at the moment that are providing quite a bit of interest among NASCAR fans.
First, there is the issue of the suspension parts that got them in hot water last week at Texas and led to some pretty severe penalties (25 points for both Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, 25 owners points for both the #2 and #22 cars, multi-week suspensions for crew chiefs and car chiefs and a team manager, plus fines).
Second, and even more interesting to me, is the whole "whodunit" angle of how the fines and penalties even came to be. See, the vehicles had made it through several suspensions, but somehow, right before the race at Texas last week, Joey Logano's car got hung up on final inspection and nearly missed the start. What led to the newfound scrutiny for the Penske cars? Depending on who you ask, the suspicion might have come from Hendrick Motorsports.
And getting back to the first issue, what is most interesting about the penalties is this basic question: Was what Penske Racing did even illegal? That's what the appeals process will sort out, but here's how Brad Keselowski views the stalemate between the Penske team and NASCAR over this parts kerfuffle.
"Obviously, we're in an agree-to-disagree stage between Penske Racing and NASCAR," the reigning Sprint Cup champion said Friday at Kansas Speedway. "And, thankfully, there's a third group to settle those disagreements," he added, referring to the appeals process.
The glimmer of hope that I see for Penske comes from what happened last year after Hendrick Motorsports' appeal - the unimaginable happened and they won their appeal, tossing most of the penalties against them for an illegal C-post on Jimmie Johnson's car. Keselowski said Friday that "there's definitely some similarities" between the Penske team's current situation and what happened last year at Hendrick, making the end result of the Penske appeal a big unknown right now. Normally, those appealing don't have a prayer, but maybe that's not the case here.
Gray areaThis all boils down to NASCAR's rigid view of what is acceptable in these new cars, and it's a view that I find to be ridiculous, quite frankly. The sport was built on innovators like Smokey Yunick who would do everything they could to make their car go faster. If you were innovative, you could beat the competition and they'd have to figure out what you were doing and catch up.
Now, NASCAR has gone so far with the rigid approach that no team can hope to innovate. Instead, they operate in what Roger Penske on Saturday called "the gray area".
"I certainly don't think it's cheating," Penske told The Associated Press Saturday. "You are looking at the rules and you are working in a gray area. We all work in the gray areas. We're trying to be as competitive as we can be, we've got very creative minds and it takes a lot of creative minds to be competitive. There are many different areas we are all working on. We just looked at a particular rule that maybe NASCAR has a different view of. Now we'll get a chance to have an unbiased panel look at it."
This is the crux of the issue. If something is not officially illegal, how can a team be penalized for breaking that "rule"; NASCAR wants it both ways, and if they maintain the penalties on Brad and Joey and their team members after overturning things on appeal in the Hendrick situation, they will be guilty of complete hypocrisy.
Unfortunately, consistency is not NASCAR's strength over its long history (and especially lately, as they seem to make their decisions on the flip of a coin and depending on who they are dealing with).
BRAD'S 2012 COMMENTS COMING BACK TO HAUNT HIM?Getting beyond what NASCAR has decided to do with these current penalties, let's go into why we may be discussing this in the first place. Some reports indicate that Hendrick drivers dropped a dime on Penske's cars and possible wrongdoing. The King himself, Richard Petty, says there is no way there weren't ratted out.
If this did happen, it probably has roots in last August at Michigan Speedway, when Keselowski insinuated Hendrick was bending the rules to gain an advantage on the competition.
"There's part and pieces on the car that are moving after inspection that makes the cars more competitive," Keselowski said after the Michigan race. "Some guys have it, some don't. There's a question as to the interpretation of the rule. Penske Racing errs on the safe side because we don't want to be the guys that get the big penalty."
Ironically, he went on to say this at the time: "As a group at Penske Racing, we have not felt comfortable enough to risk that name and reputation that Roger has over those parts and pieces. Others have, which is their prerogative. I'm not going to slam it. But it's living in a gray area. … We have to make a re-evaluation of that internally to decide if that's the right way to go."
The following week, Hendrick drivers lashed out at Brad, and basically told him to shut up. These were guys who were his former teammates from a few years back, and even his sort-of mentor Dale Earnhardt Jr., telling him to zip it and not make accusations in not-so-friendly tones.
If the stories are true and someone in the Hendrick camp did rat on the Penske cars, that's a bad case of sour grapes. Tattle-tale actions are not becoming of a champion team, especially one that has often found itself in violation of NASCAR's rules over the past couple decades.
Hendrick rebuttalIf you ask Jimmie Johnson, though, he is saying that the Penske penalties have nothing to do with him or Hendrick Motorsports, and brought up some interesting tidbits about how the garage operates.
"The Hendrick group and the No. 48 team did not rat out the Penske cars," he told the media Friday at Kansas Motor Speedway. "There are two decisions teams are faced with in the garage area. Everybody has people watching. We have been very impressed with the No. 2 car's staff and their ability to have somebody just stand and watch other teams."
I'm intrigued, Jimmie: Carry on.
"So this environment does take place in the garage area. Yeah, there are eyes open, but when a team sees something they have two options. One, they go home and try to adapt it to their car and understand it and see if they can make it work, or they go in the truck and say something. We don't say something. We are a company built on performance. We are a company that tries to understand the rulebook as close as we can to the law. Sure, we have had our issues with it, but that is racing it has been that way since day one of racing. We go in there and we try to be as smart as we can and conform to the rules and put the best race car on the track. With all that being said, no, sure there was a lot of activity around the Penske cars during the test day, just like all the other cars and everybody is watching, everybody is looking, but in no way shape or form did anybody from the No. 48 car walk into that truck and say anything."
I'm not going to say Jimmie isn't telling the truth, but if you can look me in the eyes and tell me that nobody from Hendrick is mad at Keselowski for his insinuations about Hendrick pushing the rules last year, I'm going to call you a liar. I'm not saying Jimmie walked into the trailer and told on Brad/Joey, but a blanket denial covering everyone at Hendrick just can't be believed. If getting Penske in trouble would help Jimmie and his teammates have a better shot at the title, there's no doubt in my mind that some members of the Hendrick team would jump at the chance to use that to their advantage (and, as a broader note, the whole spying on the competition thing is bigger than I imagined it to be in the garage area - I'll have to keep my eyes out for the stoolpigeons during my next garage saunter).
What I would hope everyone can agree on is that NASCAR needs to be consistent. If Jimmie's C-post penalties last year were overturned, the same should be done for Penske's cars in the case. Otherwise, NASCAR comes off looking like Hendrick backers and not impartial.
And as far as the Penske-Hendrick situation, if there's any positive in all this, it's that this could be the start of a great new rivalry, something NASCAR definitely needs. Penske and Hendrick are among the sport's top teams, and Jimmie and Brad are two of the best drivers and bound for more championship battles over the next handful of years.
Regardless of outcome, what this whole episode exposes is that the innovation that has led to progress through the decades is being stifled by NASCAR in the modern era.
Guys like Smokey Yunick would be disgusted to see how NASCAR treats innovation nowadays. (Though he wouldn't be surprised; their lack of respect for him remains to this day, as he hasn't even gotten a Hall of Fame nomination, when anyone with any knowledge of NASCAR history knows he clearly deserves one.)
Matt Myftiu lives in Michigan, has been a walking encyclopedia of NASCAR since immersing himself in the sport over 15 years ago, and has worked as a journalist for two decades. His blog on the sport, NASCAR: Beyond the Track, has been published by The Oakland Press for the past 5 years. Follow him on Twitter @MattMyftiu.
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