NASCAR Race Weekend Central

What’s Vexing Vito – Penske Penalty, Gibbs Glib, and Hope for Hamlin

Penske Racing lost its appeal on Wednesday to drop or at least reduce the penalty assessed to the No. 2 and 22 teams, following unproved rear end housings discovered in pre-race inspection at Texas Motor Speedway. Following the decision today, they are appealing to John Middlebrook, chief appellate office of NASCAR. The final appeal will be made on May 7th, so the Penske teams will remain intact through Talladega this weekend.

“I can’t make any comments, it’s clear we have a process and I’m better off to wait to see that conclude,” Penske said following the hearing with NASCAR. “All I can say about the process is it’s fair and equitable. We had an opportunity to explain our case in detail. We will move onto the next step.”

You may remember it was Middlebrook who overturned the penalty imposed on NASCAR to Jimmie Johnson following C-pillar modifications to the No. 48 at Daytona in February of 2012, which weren’t exactly in “the spirit of the rule” either. That bodes well for Penske, Joey Logano, and Brad Keselowski, who face the prospect of being without their crew chiefs, car chiefs, or team manager for the next six weeks, during the critical Summer Stretch. Oddly enough, Keselowski didn’t exactly mince words last year when asked about Middlebrook overturning the fine of the Hendrick Motorsports driver.

“I’m sure there are a lot of different opinions and I’m never short of an opinion. With this particular one, I just don’t find it interesting and don’t have an opinion on it. I didn’t join the sport to be a race car drive and argue court cases. I want to go fast, turn left and win races. Things of that nature haven’t really excited me.”

I’m guessing he’ll have an opinion on it on May 7th – particularly if it is not overturned. You may recall Keselowski made some comments regarding the rear end configurations of the HMS cars last year, and implying it may have been the No. 48 team who brought to NASCAR’s attention the issues with the Penske cars that led to the fines, suspensions, and The No. 22 car nearly missing the start of the race at Texas.

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With that said, there is another team up for an appeal as well – Joe Gibbs Racing. Following Matt Kenseth’s win at Kansas, one of the connecting rods on the No. 20 Toyotas was found to be lighter than the minimum by 3 grams. The average weight of all of the rods was more than the minimum, but one was found light. TRD announced they ended up pulling three engines destined for the No. 15 MWR entry of Clint Bowyer citing similar connecting rod weight discrepancies. Lee White of Toyota has explained that they aren’t able to weigh all of the rods, and that they are sourced from Germany.

Uh, okay. You build $50,000 race engines for the world’s largest automaker, competing in the largest racing series in North America, but don’t weigh and balance them? This is the same company that blew $1 billion on a decade-long campaign in Formula One, but they don’t weigh parts for their stockcar engines?

Judging by the severity of the penalty, I’d say there is something else at play here. My first thought was connecting rods of different weights may be used to offset harmonics within engine to eek out another horsepower or two. Might it be a metallurgical malfeasance that went awry, causing a discrepancy in weight, but not wanting to tip off other teams in an effort to start a weight war in the engine rooms?

Let’s not forget, this isn’t the first time that Joe Gibbs Racing has run afoul of NASCAR with regards to testing, inspection, and engine parts.

Following a Nationwide race at Michigan in 2008, NASCAR corralled top finishing cars of each brand to test the power output on a chassis dyno. They found the JGR cars to be way short on power – and to have had ¼ magnets placed under the accelerator pedals, so they wouldn’t reveal the actual horsepower they were producing. Again at Michigan in 2011, they were caught with heavy oil pans – 25lbs heavy – as well as modifications to the front cross member to affect handling and weight distribution.

Nothing wrong with building a better mousetrap, but they aren’t a team with a spotless record. It’s no worse or better than any other team, and I would expect NASCAR to rule as such.

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Denny Hamlin says he plans to start the race at Talladega this weekend – thought he has yet to be cleared by NASCAR to race. His motivation to get back in the car at this point is two-fold. Yeah, we get it….he’s a racer, being out of the car makes him sick, it sucks watching some other guy drive (and wreck) your car – but didn’t he just say last week that his pain threshold on a scale of 1-10 is a 7, and he may require surgery if things don’t move along? Clambering in and out of the car, bending at obtuse angles with a helmet on probably won’t help, and neither would getting in an accident, which at Talladega – where cars sometimes almost get in the crowd and the entire field can get wiped out in one corner – could very well happen in the early laps.

In 2009, a good portion of the field was involved in a wreck on lap six – and the new car doesn’t exactly have a whole lot of spoiler on it, and was dicey at Daytona in February. Starting is not without its own inherent dangers and risk.

Right now Hamlin sits 29th in points, 127 behind Kevin Harvick in 10th – who just won a race. 127 points under the current system is about 560 points under the old system. You’re not going to make up that kind of ground racing under the new format, and quite honestly, there is no need to – given you remain in the top 20 in points. The best thing about The Chase for a driver who may miss a few races, is that there are two spots reserved for wins. His biggest threats to contend with for wins in that position are Jeff Gordon in 14th, Matt Kenseth in 13th (who will almost certainly be in the Top 10, pending penalty appeal or otherwise), Kevin Harvick in 10th, and teammate Kyle Busch in 7th. Outside of that, maybe Kurt Busch (who currently resides in 20th), or coincidentally, Joey Logano.

Starting the race – any race – at this point, just to get out, some may say is both tactically and strategically unsound. His best bet is to lay down, rest, heal, rehab, and get ready for tracks he has won at and is always a factor: Pocono, Michigan, Loudon, Bristol, and Richmond. Win two of those, and you’re almost a shoe in. The only problem is, he has to be at least 20th in points to do so. Talladega may be his best shot, as well as the Coca-Cola 600 if things drag on to help pull off some sort of points salvaging operation.

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About Vito Pugliese

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Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.