In recent seasons, the National Stock Car Racing Chief Appellate Officer has consistently reduced the severity of NASCAR sanctions on appeal. He has softened the blow for Richard Childress Racing, Hendrick Motorsports and Penske Racing in the last 12 months, and may get an opportunity to do the same for Joe Gibbs Racing today, pending the outcome of an Appeals Hearing in Concord, NC.
Why is Middlebrook so insistent on letting teams down easy?
It's simple. He and NASCAR have different goals.
As the sport’s final court of appeal, Middlebrook is concerned primarily with fairness. His goal is to deal with offending teams in a balanced, even-handed manner; balancing punition with compassion. NASCAR, meanwhile, is focused almost entirely on deterrence.
Middlebrook doesn’t care if teams continue to bend the rules. He is not the one examining dozens of race cars with a fine-tooth comb -- multiple times each weekend -- and he surely loses no sleep trying to anticipate the latest “gray area” innovation from the creative minds employed at Hendrick, Childress or Gibbs. He has never rolled around on a creeper in a sweltering hot Sprint Cup garage while trying to detect a single oblong mounting hole, and he has surely never experienced the job of counting the threads on lug nuts, one after another.
He also is not subjected to intense questioning from media, competitors and fans in the aftermath of each ruling, the way NASCAR is.
The sanctioning body, however, is all about deterrence and precedent. If fining a crew chief $200,000 this week makes his colleagues second-guess a similarly creative interpretation of the rules next week, that’s “mission accomplished” from the sanctioning body’s point of view. Vice president for competition Robin Pemberton said years ago that NASCAR would increase penalties until the violations ceased, and on that count, he has been as good as his word.
Middlebrook’s decision to trim the suspensions handed down to Penske Racing’s team manager, crew chiefs, car chiefs and engineers yesterday allows the team to claim at least a partial victory. It does nothing, however, to soften the message sent by NASCAR to its teams.
“Keep messing with this Gen-6 race car, and we’ll make you pay,” they said. “We’ll fine you and dock you championship points. We’ll also give you a multi-week `time out’ to think about what you’ve done.”
Only time will tell whether or not that message has been received. The smart money, however, says teams are through tinkering with moveable rear ends, in the aftermath of the Penske sanctions.
NASCAR has apparently done its job, and Middlebrook has done his.