CONCORD, N.C. (AP) — Penske Racing celebrated a small victory Tuesday when NASCAR's chief appellate officer issued a mixed ruling on penalties levied against the team. Although most everything was upheld, suspensions for seven key employees were reduced from six points races to two.
Team owner Roger Penske said he was "very happy with the outcome" following John Middlebrook's decision.
"All of us have lost points, six, eight, 10, 12 for certain infractions over the years," Penske said. "I don't think this is something we worry about. Obviously we don't worry about it. But from my perspective, the key thing is to have our people back at the race track, operating in full control. I think that's most important. If we're going to win, and be a leader and win a championship again, we've got plenty of time to do that."
NASCAR inspectors confiscated parts from the rear suspensions of the cars of defending champion Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano before the April 13 race at Texas. NASCAR alleged the parts were not approved, while Penske maintained the parts had been approved but the organization was applying them in a way that fell in a gray area of the rule book.
Penske still felt that way Tuesday: "I don't think we were confused. As we interpreted the rules, these are undefined areas."
"This sport has been built on innovation," he said. "All of us have tried to innovate in areas not defined in the rulebook. We were in that area."
NASCAR docked Keselowski and Logano 25 points each, and fined crew chiefs Paul Wolfe and Todd Gordon $100,000 each. NASCAR also suspended Wolfe, Gordon, competition director Travis Geisler, car chiefs Jerry Kelley and Raymond Fox and engineers Brian Wilson and Samuel Stanley for six races.
All suspensions were reduced to two points races, plus next week's All-Star race. They can return to work at Dover for the June 2 race. Penske did not immediately address how the organization would address the personnel issues at Darlington Raceway this weekend.
"The important thing is, this is over," Penske said. "This has been 2-3 weeks of constant questions, lots of emotions. I feel our bench is strong and people can fill in for the crew chiefs."
Middlebrook, a former General Motors executive who is paid $1 per year by NASCAR, heard two cases last year. He reduced similar penalties against Hendrick Motorsports crew chief Chad Knaus after the initial appeals board upheld his punishment.
He lifted the suspension and reinstated Jimmie Johnson's points, but left intact the $100,000 fine NASCAR levied against Knaus for altering sheet metal on the car before inspection at the season-opening Daytona 500. Middlebrook also upheld all penalties on Richard Childress Racing for modifications made to Paul Menard's frame rails.
Penske praised NASCAR's appeals process, and didn't mind the two phases. But it's becoming clear that those who run afoul of NASCAR have their best chance at redemption with Middlebrook: Since NASCAR began keeping records in 1999, the first-phase National Stock Car Racing Appeals Panel that Penske went before last week has upheld 106 of 150 appeals.
Still, he said the system is fair.
"I think the process is good. The panel is the first step and you don't go to the Supreme Court the first day," Penske said. "We operated within the guidelines and I'm happy with the outcome."
During the first phase of appeal, each side presents its case separately to a three-member panel that is chosen from a pool of 49 potential jurors. The other side is not in the room during the presentation.
During final appeal, each side presents its case separately and Middlebrook then brings both parties into the room to question them together. Penske said that was the first time his organization was able to hear from Sprint Cup Series director John Darby directly about the infractions.
"Today we had the opportunity to meet with the chief appellate officer and we had that opportunity in conjunction to meet with NASCAR, and this was the first opportunity we had to listen to John specifically to say 'These are the areas we think you are over the line on,'" Penske said. "Obviously we had our rebuttal on that, and then the appellate officer had a chance to take into consideration all of the comments we made and NASCAR made, and he came up with a final ruling."
It's a busy week for NASCAR, which on Wednesday defends before the three-member panel penalties levied against Joe Gibbs Racing for an illegal part being found in Matt Kenseth's race-winning engine from Kansas.
JGR is not arguing the part was illegal. The team is instead seeking a reduction of the penalties because the infraction was a mistake on manufacturer Toyota's part that the team had nothing to do with, and it did not provide a competitive advantage.