Mike Helton? Heck no.
The most powerful man in NASCAR is named John Middlebrook, and most fans couldn’t pick him out of a police lineup.
|Most powerful man in NASCAR.|
After 49 years as a high-level executive at General Motors, Middlebrook was named Chief Appellate Officer of the National Stock Car Racing Commission in 2010, working for the lordly sum of $1 per year. He has presided over four appeals in that time; each time reducing penalties assessed by NASCAR to various drivers and teams. Tuesday’s decision was his boldest statement yet, overturning a veritable buffet of sanctions levied by NASCAR that was upheld unanimously just a week before by a three-member appeal panel -- against Hendrick Motorsports and crew chief Chad Knaus.
Middlebrook vetoed six-race suspensions for both Knaus and car chief Ron Malec. He erased 25-point penalties assessed to owner-of-record Jeff Gordon and driver Jimmie Johnson, instantly bumping the five-time Sprint Cup Series champion from 17th to 11th in points, just two markers out of the Top-10. Curiously, he stopped short of clearing Knaus’ punitive plate, leaving intact a $100,000 fine and placing him and Malek on probation until May 9.
Understandably, both Knaus and team owner Rick Hendrick hailed the decision. "I'm not surprised, but glad,” said Hendrick yesterday. “It just felt like, to me, it was the only way it could go.'' Hendrick also managed to stifle a smile while stating, “I would have liked to have had the fine gone, too, because there's no reason for any kind of penalty.”
Sources say Middlebrook pored over nearly two dozen photographs submitted by HMS in its defense, along with many pages of documentation and three affidavits; one of which was submitted by a NASCAR official. NASCAR also presented its side of the story; presumably the same evidence It used to curry a unanimous guilty verdict from panelists John Capels, Leo Mehl and Dean Pinilis just days before.
What did Middlebrook hear that the three-member panel did not? We’ll never know.
|Hendrick, "Not surprised, but glad."|
Capels, Mehl and Pinilis declined invitations to comment on Tuesday’s ruling, while Middlebrook’s written statement consisted strictly of “What I’ve done,” rather than “Why I did it.” NASCAR spokesperson Kerry Tharp insisted the sanctioning body made no mistakes at Daytona, adding, “I think our inspection process (has) worked very, very well in the garage area for many, many years. I think it's going to work well for many years to come.'' Those close to the sanctioning body, however, say officials were left dumbfounded by Tuesday’s unexpected reversal of fortune.
The reduction in penalties was the fourth mandated by Middlebrook in his brief tenure as head of NASCAR’s Appeals Board. In 2010, he upheld a 150-point penalty levied against Clint Bowyer and Richard Childress Racing for post-race body infractions at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, but cut crew chief Shane Wilson's $100,000 fine in half and trimmed suspensions for Wilson and car chief Chad Haney from six races to four. That same year, he halved a fine levied against Nationwide team owner Johnny Davis from $5,000 to $2,500, after Davis was involved in a post-race scuffle with a rival driver. Earlier this year, he erased the indefinite suspension levied against driver Peyton Sellers for an altercation with a NASCAR official at a short-track race.
In all four instances, those sanctions had been allowed to stand by the commission.
Last week, SPEED TV commentator Kyle Petty called NASCAR’s appeals process, “a crapshoot.” With a strict, by-the-book sanctioning body and an appeal board that rubber-stamps those penalties, only to see its decisions turned upside down in the end, the word, “crapshoot” certainly seems to apply.