Resolution in Penske Racing’s appeal created no clear winner

Jared C. Tilton

Penske Racing having its penalties partially reduced makes it appear the team came out ahead. That perception, however, isn’t entirely accurate.

The instant analysis is Penske Racing scored a victory Tuesday when NASCAR chief appellate officer John Middlebrook reduced the suspensions of seven key personnel from six races to two.

That opinion wouldn't be entirely wrong when you consider crew chiefs Paul Wolfe and Todd Gordon along with Penske competition director Travis Geisler were among the crewmembers who had their suspensions whittled down.

Not to mention the backbone of the team -- car chief Jerry Kelley and lead engineer Brian Wilson -- that propelled Brad Keselowski to the Sprint Cup title a year ago will all be back long before originally thought.

For a team with championship aspirations that's a win.

However, Tuesday's ruling was more nuanced than Penske won, NASCAR lost.

What Middlebrook did was modify the penalties so that they're now more in line with the infraction committed.

Penske's offense wasn't egregious, instead, in the simplest terms, it was caught making unapproved adjustments to the rear suspension components.

Lest we forget, even after examining the evidence and hearing both sides, Middlebrook didn't exonerate Penske. The team was still found to have run afoul of the NASCAR rule book -- whether it did so intentionally or was merely playing in the margins is open for interpretation.

The loss of seven team members for two races is far more manageable than having them out for six, obviously. But it's still a fairly big hurdle for an organization to manage, especially when you take into account that the sanctions affect both the No. 2 and No. 22 teams.

Although the subtraction of 25 driver points shouldn't hinder Keselowski too much considering he's a healthy 35 markers ahead of 11th-place Matt Kenseth, the same can't be said for his teammate, Joey Logano.

In his first year with Penske, Logano finds himself 43 points behind Greg Biffle in 10th. And without those 25 valuable points, his only viable route to securing his first Chase berth is by claiming one of the two available Wild Card slots.

But to do that he's going to have to win. This is a tall task when you realize that drivers currently in Wild Card contention are Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth, all of whom have double-digit career wins compared to Logano's two.

Simply put, without those 25 points the odds aren't in Logano's favor.

As for NASCAR, while the heavy-handedness the sanctioning body used was deemed too excessive, a message was still sent that cheaters will be dealt with -- though certainly not to the level officials want.

What has to be disconcerting to NASCAR is Middlebrook, a former General Motors executive, has a penchant for reducing high-profile penalties that are appealed for a final time.

Most notably, last spring when he lifted a six-race suspension on Chad Knaus and rescinded a 25-point penalty issued to Jimmie Johnson.

All of which means, if recent precedence holds true, the big winner Tuesday was a team that wasn't even a participant in the proceedings.

On Wednesday, Joe Gibbs Racing will walk down the road Penske just traveled when it begins the appeals process for an underweight engine part found on Matt Kenseth's car following his victory at Kansas.

Assuming the case finds its way to Middlebrook, which appears inevitable, JGR now has to possess full confidence that, if and when its final appeal is heard, the initial penalties will be abbreviated in some manner.

This, of course, will once again begin the debate anew of who won, who lost and so forth. But just as the case is with Penske, it's unlikely the answer will be transparent.

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