Upstaging Brad Keselowski is not an easy thing to do. He's talkative, opinionated, and has the clout of a shiny new Sprint Cup Series championship ring adding weight to everything he says. This is the guy who sends lists of suggested improvements to car owner Roger Penske, who oversees one of the sport's largest social media followings, who's gotten away with venting on NASCAR a few times and this week hung out with the president of the United States.
So yes, it's tough to eclipse the clear competitive leader at Penske Racing, a driver who is also among the more authoritative voices in the garage. But give Joey Logano credit -- he's certainly not shy about trying to carve out his own identity, as he's shown in scrapes with Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart in recent weeks. The teammates were certainly on equal footing in NASCAR's eyes, when the sanctioning body doled out penalties on Wednesday for violations discovered on the Nos. 2 and 22 cars prior to last weekend's event at Texas Motor Speedway.
Not unexpectedly, Keselowski was the bigger story -- although both drivers had 25 points taken away and three key crewmembers suspended, Keselowski is the reigning champion of NASCAR's premier series. He's the one standing on the circuit's tallest soapbox, he's the one who said Penske felt "targeted" by the sanctioning body after those rear-end parts were confiscated, he's the one who shook hands with Barack Obama. In this situation, pending appeal, Keselowski has more at stake. But it's Logano who has more to lose.
In fairness, these 25-point penalties are no more harsh than those handed down by NASCAR after violations last year -- Jeff Gordon was docked the same amount after intentionally wrecking Clint Bowyer at Phoenix, as was Paul Menard after the frame rails of his car were discovered to have been altered at Michigan. But by dropping six-week suspensions on the crew chief, car chief, and engineer on both Penske programs, as well as team competition director Travis Geisler, NASCAR sent a clear message that what it saw in the vehicles' rear-end housings did not comply with provisions of the 2013 rule book.
So yes, this is severe. Get-your-attention severe. Don't-do-it-again severe. Penske has promised to appeal, which means the suspended crewmen can work until the appeal is heard. The point deductions, though, go into effect automatically. Keselowski was in a position to better withstand it, having been second in the standings behind Jimmie Johnson. He's now fourth, 34 back. Down in 14th place, though, Logano finds himself in a much more tenuous spot.
That's not to say Keselowski will waltz right through this, even if the National Stock Car Racing Appeals Panel (and perhaps the Chief Appellate Officer, if it goes that far), upholds NASCAR's decision. The No. 2 team has been very good all season, but doesn't yet have a victory to fall back on. If the penalty stands, Keselowski is suddenly one engine failure out of 10th. And most importantly, he'd have to get by for six long weeks without Paul Wolfe, the crew chief with whom he's won all but one of his nine career Sprint Cup victories. Johnson summed it up -- those two are as inseparable as himself and Chad Knaus are now, as Gordon and Ray Evernham once were.
Of course, this is coming from a guy who once won the Daytona 500 with his regular crew chief sitting at home, but the point is still relevant. Surely, a suspended Wolfe would be watching on television, texting in suggestions, still playing a valuable role. But it wouldn't be his voice in Keselowski's ear, won't be him making those necessary snap decisions atop the pit box. Yes, Keselowski has built up a cushion by running so well this year. But that doesn't mean the penalties wouldn't come back to bite him one day, should they be upheld.
Logano, though, doesn't have that luxury. He's run much better than his results might indicate this season, one source of his frustrations with Hamlin at Bristol and Fontana, but even so prior to Wednesday stood a more than respectable ninth. The 22-year-old was in the midst of his best stretch this season, bookending a rotten day at Martinsville with a strong Fontana effort -- we all remember the details there, right? -- and a fifth-place finish at Texas, which came after he had to start at the rear of the field because his car had to go through inspection multiple times, and didn't make it to the grid on time.
No question, Logano appeared to be finally finding his footing with his new team -- and now this, which knocks him back five places in the standings, amid guys like Jamie McMurray and Aric Almirola who are trying to make statements of their own, much less champions like Gordon and Stewart trying to rebound from slow starts. In short, he's lost a lot of his track position, and is suddenly mired back in heavy traffic, with fast cars potentially looming in his rearview mirror.
It has to be frustrating for a driver who has worked very hard to prove himself, who was essentially handpicked by Keselowski and Penske to lend stability to the No. 22 program, whose age and rough national-series beginnings made the current champion feel like he was looking in a mirror. If there's an upside to all this, it's that the penalty comes early enough that Logano still has time to make up what was taken away from him. Regardless, the standards for him remain higher than they've ever been, and the goal remains that elusive first Chase for the Sprint Cup berth, and for drivers who don't win very often, every point is precious.
Logano, with two career victories, certainly fits into that category. In fourth place and in contention almost every weekend, Keselowski should be able to weather all this. But unless things take a drastic uptick and runs like Fontana suddenly become the norm for the No. 22 car -- it is Penske equipment, so anything is possible -- Logano is going to be in a fight for a wild card berth all season. And barring a surprise verdict from the appeals panel, that fight just got more difficult than it was only a few days ago.
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