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Black Monday looms, the NASCAR championship is on the line Sunday, and the lead story Friday: another NASCAR secret penalty?

    Carl Edwards at Homestead: Is this the weekend that he finally wins the NASCAR championship? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   (2nd Update)

   By Mike Mulhern


   Black Monday looms, with pink slips anticipated by too many crewmen here. But, on the eve of the tightest championship battle in many years -- Tony Stewart versus Carl Edwards -- NASCAR's marketers appear to be flunking Marketing 101:
   The lead story here Friday morning at Homestead Miami Speedway isn't Stewart-Edwards, it's that secret penalty NASCAR executives reportedly have levied on Brad Keselowski for talking about the expense of the looming engine changeover from venerable carburetors to more modern fuel injection for the 2012 Sprint Cup season.
   NASCAR levied secret penalties on Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman last season, for comments the Daytona-based sanctioning body didn't like.
   Hamlin and Newman were both hit with $50,000 fines, Hamlin for complaining about suspect yellow flags, Newman for complaining about safety issues at Talladega.
   Keselowski has apparently been fined $25,000. For what?
   Apparently for these words, about fuel injection:
   "We're not doing this because it's better for the teams.
   "It's a media circus -- trying to make you guys happy, so you write good stories.
   "It gives them something to promote.
   "We're always looking for something to promote…but the honest answer is it does nothing for the sport except cost the team owners money.
    "Cars on the street are injected with real electronics, not (just) a throttle body (as NASCAR is mandating).
     "So we've managed to go from 50-year-old technology to 35-year-old technology.
     "I don't see what the big deal is."
    A quick run through the NASCAR garage Friday morning found general support for Keselowski's viewpoint. "Telling the truth," one of this season's winning crew chiefs said, of course now with the admonition not to use his name because of worries about being fined himself.
   And stock car engine builders have been leery about the planned changeover anyway, making some pointed comments about the PR aspects of it.
   (Ironically Keselowski's boss, Roger Penske, probably has more experience with fuel injection, used in Indy-cars for five years now, than most NASCAR rivals.)


   Brad Keselowski: crewmen in the garage says he was only 'speaking the truth' about NASCAR's move to fuel injected engines, but NASCAR reportedly fined him $25,000 for comments detrimental to the sport nevertheless. And NASCAR CEO Brian France wasn't apologetic. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Just what NASCAR executives didn't like about Keselowski's comments, well, NASCAR CEO Brian France says "In the last couple of years we've taken a position that drivers are going to be able to speak their mind and criticize the sport way more than any other sport would allow.
    "However there have to be some limits….you can't denigrate the sport, you just can't do that, we're not going to accept that.
    "Almost every driver has come up to me at one time and said 'I'm glad you did that, because I don't like it when somebody just says something that is irresponsible about the sport.'
    "They are perfectly fine to criticize anything we do, any call we make.  They can say they don't like it, or they disagree with it. That's fine. 
    "But we're not going to let anyone denigrate the sport, and that's going to continue.
    "Whether we make the fines public or private -- we didn't see a benefit to making them public.
    "When you cross a line that denigrates the direction of the sport, or the quality of the racing, we're not going to accept that.
    "We went for 50-some years and never had a system to fine anybody for disparaging remarks.  We're the only sport on the planet that had that. 
     "We changed that policy because we thought we needed to. It's a new policy."
    Keselowski joins Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman with secret penalties. However that may not be the complete list of drivers getting 'secret' penalties, France indicated.
    France used the analogy "If I own a restaurant, and I say 'You know what – the food in my restaurant isn't very good…..' we're not going to accept that."
    For his part Keselowski calls that "a great analogy.
    "But when I go to a restaurant and ask the waitress about the food, the first thing I ask her is 'What would you not order? What's the worst item on the menu?'
    "Because I feel any restaurant is going to have bad food and going to have good food. You only trust the person for a recommendation if they can admit they have one item on the menu that is not quite so good.
    "When I can get an honest waitress who will say 'Hey, this is terrible; you should get this,' then I believe her when she says 'Hey, don't eat the omelet; eat the French Toast.
    "That's how I've always viewed the sport – I've always viewed the sport as credible when it can admit its fallacies."

     Kyle Petty came to Keselowski's defense, and he said he "definitely, strongly disagree with the practice of imposing secret fines on drivers or anyone in the sport.
    "If you're going to fine an athlete in any sport for something that a sanctioning body perceives as derogatory to the sport in any way, it's because they obviously made a public comment.  And if it's so derogatory and it's publicly made, then it should carry a public fine and be publicly reprimanded.  I definitely disagree with the secrecy here."
   Such secret fines, Petty went on, "infringes on NASCAR's credibility a bit.
   "As a fan watching the sport, how do you know what these guys are being told, what they're being fined for, what is being said behind closed doors? You don't know.
     "When drivers say things, you wonder if those thoughts are their true feelings or if it's just 'political-speak,' something they've been told to say.
     "At the same time I totally agree with NASCAR that competitors should not slam the sport. It's our sport; it's a sport we all try to build up.
    "But I don't see where Brad said anything against the sport itself.  He just said he didn't like EFI."


Brian France: In Mexico City earlier this week....wonder what that might portend.... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   The fuel injection issue has been controversial for several reason, principally economic, but also technical.
   Newman, an engineer (who tested EFI cars at Martinsville and Charlotte this fall), says one problem he is seeing with fuel injection in NASCAR engines is that the cars drive differently than cars with carburetors on the engines. Denny Hamlin agrees, saying the response from an EFI engine is much quicker, but points to some problems with the engine 'stumbling.'
   On top of that, NASCAR officials apparently haven't finalized all the specs for the fuel injection systems, such as sensors, injectors and electrical wiring harnesses….with the Daytona 500 mid-January test barely six weeks away. The new electrical systems could be quite problematic, considering the tremendous amount of heat generated within a stock car. It is unclear if any EFI engine has been track-run a full 500 miles under race conditions yet.  And teams still don't know the bottom line – how much this changeover will actually cost.
    NASCAR's France, addressing the media Friday (the first time since early October at Kansas City), discussed the 'secret' penalty controversy and several other issues.

    -- France says his goal is to eliminate the two-car drafts at Daytona and Talladega: "We would prefer to eliminate tandem racing, no question about that. 
   "We are working on rolling back the clock to traditional Daytona-Talladega races. We'll have to see how that goes. 
    "I think the majority of fans would like to see that, and so would we."
    One suggestion is to make the front-end of Daytona 500 cars more fragile, so drivers would be leery to push too hard.
   Hamlin suggests NASCAR let drivers qualify at the 200-mph mark at Daytona: "That's where we should be qualifying....because in a big push draft you just won't be able to do that. The cars would just go too fast. And handling would be an issue...and when handling is an issue, you can't run in two-car tandems. So the faster they let us run by ourselves, the better racing you'll see."


Car owner Richard Childress (L), with grandson Austin. What shakeups does Childress have planned? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    -- France says he may reconsider NASCAR's policy of 'secret' penalties and make them public;

    -- He said he has just returned from two days in Mexico City, working on undisclosed issues;

    -- He said NASCAR officials plan to talk with Brian Vickers and Matt Kenseth about their recent run-ins (leaving open the question why it has taken nearly three weeks):  "There is a line.  The drivers know where the line is."
     (However drivers here yesterday again insisted that line has considerable grey area.)

    -- France defended himself against complaint that he doesn't spend as much time at the tracks each race weekend as his father and grandfather: "If I thought that I was the last one out of every event and I turned the light off on the way out, that that would grow the sport in some way, I would do it.
    "What we have is a different sport than it was 10 or 15 years ago.
    "I don't publish my schedule, but it's pretty busy.  We feel we're managing the sport the best way we need to to grow the sport."
    -- And France said he and his men are working "harder than ever" to try to attract new sponsors to the sport: "We just held a 'green' summit. 
    "We are doing things that attract new companies, and new technology to validate in our sport. 
    "We're renewing a lot of companies. Some companies will pull back their commitments or leave all together. But we're working harder than ever with the teams and their business groups to tell the NASCAR story and the value it brings to sponsors.  We're having success with that.
    "We've never had a more offensive strategy to bring in as many new companies as possible."

    But this Brad Keselowski fuel injection controversy, in which Keselowski only voiced the same complaints that many here have about the timing….
    One of the problems with fuel injection is that the economy's bad and EFI is expensive…an extra expense at a bad time. 
    (Already there are hints that NASCAR may be willing to let teams run carburetor-engines during the early part of 2012, in order to keep full fields.)
   France insists the move to EFI has been well underway for several years.  "These are not the things you can just pull off the shelf and put them back on.
   "We have agreements with suppliers that have to be met.
   "You've got to remember why are we doing that -- because we want to be more relevant to the car manufacturers, and other green technologies as well. 
    "We're going to have to do more than we did in the past.  It's not because we (just) feel like doing it, or want to put additional costs on anyone, but because they're accepting a lot of money from the car manufacturers, and that's what's under the hood on cars today."

    There is much more going in the NASCAR garage as the season winds down to the final hours.
    Car owner Richard Childress appears ready to make some major changes. Speculation here is Shane Wilson's team, which is losing Clint Bowyer at the end of the season, may take over Kevin Harvick's side of the soon-to-be three-team camp. And that has crew chief Gil Martin and his guys wondering where they would end up.
   Martin says he's still Harvick's crew chief "today." But Monday? Martin winced, and nodded toward his crew and said "We don't know....."
   Martin remember has crewed Harvick to the playoffs with great shots at the NASCAR championship the past two seasons. That, however, may not be enough for Harvick.
    "There are a lot of things happening, with the one Cup team going away and adding three Nationwide teams and a Truck team," Harvick says of the whole Childress operation. "Obviously there are going to be some personnel changes.
    "If we had won the championship, you'd say 'You probably don't need to do anything.'
     "But if we sit on our hands and don't evaluate everybody's position, we'd be fools."


   Gil Martin: the crew chief who helped put Kevin Harvick in the championship playoffs the past two years. Will he be running Harvick's team in 2012? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)





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