Brad Keselowski: the NASCAR champion speaks his peace.... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
NASCAR has been cracking so heavy on its stock car teams lately that paranoia might well be building in the Sprint Cup garage.
Of course it's not paranoia if they really are after you LOL.
Let's ask Brad Keselowski, Whipping Boy #1, for his take on the latest NASCAR controversy. After all he's got a few days before his own appeals court showdown with that three-man panel of NASCAR judges....
"There's no doubt there's been a pretty significant ratcheting (up) effect to the penalties in the sport," the sport's defending champion says.
"It takes a lot to really surprise me nowadays... whether it was the penalty we received the past week or the one that happened to the Gibbs group.
"I understand both sides, in a sense, but then again I don't.
"What the sport really lacks right now is a way for us to curb fair play -- to balance the fair play the sport needs so that our fans can really relate to it without presenting this -- I don't want to call it an illusion, but presenting this almost like a façade.... as though there's cheating in the sport.
"I think it's pretty obvious when you look at Matt Kenseth's issue, the parts were not that influential to the performance, and probably didn't win him the race.
"Anyone could probably say that; but from NASCAR's side, they know if you give an inch, you've got to give a mile.
"Basically what we lack in the sport is some kind of proportionate response to manage that.
"It's a pretty significant penalty."
Matt Kenseth (L) and crew chief Jason Ratcliff (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Indeed, if the full penalties are upheld, Kenseth and his team are all but out of championship contention. Two DNFs already, and now a potential loss of six weeks of car owner race points.
....not to mention what sponsor Home Depot might think of this mess. After all Home Depot has become almost a vanishing act as sponsor, and execs aren't pleased at watching arch-rival Jimmie Johnson win championship after championship.
Certainly NASCAR officials weren't paying much attention to sponsorship issues in the Kenseth situation, nor should they. Still, sponsorship is critical in this sport and increasingly fragile.
Keselowski repeats his position that something is amiss in NASCAR's rash of harsh penalties, but he's not sure just what.
The long-standing stance is that NASCAR will not allow teams to mess with engines, tires or fuel, and teams are well aware of 'the death penalty' looming over anyone who violates that.
For example, when car owner Junior Johnson's engine was found illegal post-race after the 1991 Charlotte All-Star race, Johnson, his crew chief and his driver were all suspended for 12 weeks. That penalty was cut, on appeal, to four weeks. Still the driver -- Tommy Ellis -- was not allowed to race.
At least Kenseth wasn't suspended by NASCAR...
Keselowski suggests NASCAR could find "other ways to take control of the situation."
Part of the problem these days might be that NASCAR isn't laying out the specific illegal parts for rivals to look at and consider.
That creates questions.
"More times than not, there's usually a series of events that lead up to such an instance," Keselowski says. "And that might have been the case.
"And those series of events are usually behind closed doors.
"But then obviously this situation is not behind closed doors."
Well, all the facts in the Kenseth situation may not be out in the open either.
And Keselowski says some pieces to the puzzle may remain secret. (Does anyone have the full story yet on Clint Bowyer's 2010 New Hampshire violations?)
"So it's difficult (to assess the Kenseth situation), because I don't think any of us probably know the full circumstance.. and there's a strong chance we probably never will.
"From my experience, there's usually a lot more than what you can see."
Transparency has never been a NASCAR strong point.
Keselowski may be right in that NASCAR executives should reassess the concept of penalties, rather than continue using a playbook from the distant past.
"I feel we need something in our sport similar to what the NBA or the NFL has -- 'fouls,' or 'yardage' penalties, or whatever," he says.
"We need something like that in our sport: something to control people from getting too far out, but without sending this large message that I think we send when we have issues like this that make people kind of question the competitors and where they're at.
"I know I personally don't enjoy answering the questions from fans in the scenarios we've been presented over the last few weeks: 'Does this mean you're a cheater?'
"I don't think that's fair. You look at the best players in the NBA: Michael Jordan committed fouls and you don't see the fans look at him and call him a cheater. It's just kind of part of the game.
"When you're pushing to the limits, sometimes things just step over, whether it's intentional or not.
"It sounds like that's what happened with Matt.
"And unfortunately we don't have a system to really keep that in check without it becoming almost a death penalty situation."
Paul Wolfe, Brad Keselowski's crew chief, facing six-week suspension for a questioned rear end at Texas (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)