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NASCAR

Motorsports notebook: Keselowski, NASCAR feud keeps growing

The honeymoon is over for Brad Keselowski and NASCAR.

The country’s premier auto racing organization and its champion needed only a few weeks for problems to arise. Now the two are pretty much citing irreconcilable differences. NASCAR brought the hammer down on Keselowski and Penske Racing for illegal car parts, docking the driver and teammate Joey Logano 25 points apiece in the Sprint Cup standings and suspending both teams’ crew chiefs, car chiefs and lead engineers for six races and the All-Star race.

The sentence came after NASCAR delayed the No. 2 team in inspection the week before in Martinsville and then penalized it for a bad pit stop in the race. By the time NASCAR was making off with his car’s rear end housings before the race last Saturday in Texas, Keselowski finally decided he’d had enough.

“The way we’ve been treated over the last seven days is absolute shameful,” he said after the race. “I feel like we’ve been targeted over the last seven days more than I’ve ever seen a team targeted in my life.”

So NASCAR is calling its defending champion a cheat, and he’s calling NASCAR a bully. It’s a full-blown feud, and it wasn’t hard to see coming.

Keselowski’s winning the Sprint Cup championship in 2012 gave NASCAR a top driver that it hadn’t had in a while. This isn’t Jimmie Johnson, who sidesteps controversy and has a polished answer for every question, or even Tony Stewart, who has a volatile temper but saves most of his barbs for the media.

With Keselowski, anything goes. He’s brash and confident, without much of a filter standing between his mind and the microphone. When you ask him a question, there’s no dancing around. He’s to the point, often frank, always honest.

That doesn’t go over so well with the people in charge. Sure, NASCAR likes to paint itself as open-minded, which is a reason why it didn’t fine Keselowski for his comments on the penalty.

“That’s the beauty of NASCAR,” Chairman Brian France said. “We do allow the drivers to express themselves in that way, even if they say things that we would disagree with.”

Sounds good, except NASCAR’s already contradicted itself this season. Just ask Denny Hamlin, who was slapped with a $25,000 fine in March for providing honest criticism of the new car after a race in Phoenix. The incident made NASCAR come off as sensitive, which doesn’t bode well for getting along with Keselowski. He’s not one to spare feelings, which he demonstrated by calling out peers Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon after their altercation in Phoenix last year.

The combination is a combustible one, and even if the source of the argument (Penske Racing’s alleged indiscretions) was unexpected, the behavior of the two sides wasn’t. NASCAR fired the shot, and Keselowski’s made it clear he’s not backing down. He’s defended his team, and with an appeal in the works, it’ll be a while before the matter resolves itself. It’s the first big clash between the two sides, but it might not be the last.

Blame game

The King smelled something fishy. Richard Petty knew there had to be more to the NASCAR/Keselowski story, specifically how it knew to go after the Penske cars for the unapproved parts.

“Undoubtedly, someone told them what the Penske crew was doing,” Petty said.

Petty’s opinion was a popular one, with many thinking “someone” was Hendrick Motorsports, which had its cars next to Penske’s in Texas. The speculation grew following the race, and Jimmie Johnson spoke out to defend his team and end the rumors.

“The Hendrick group and the 48 team did not rat out the Penske cars,” he said. “In no way shape or form did anybody from the 48 car walk in that truck and say anything.

“There are two decisions teams are faced with … when the team sees something. One, they go home and they try to adapt it to their car and see if they can make it work. Or they go on the (NASCAR) truck and say something. We don’t say something. We’re a company built on performance.”

Notable quote

“NASCAR docked points. Can I have em? Pretty please? #chase” – Tweet from Hamlin on April 17 after finding out about the Penske penalties. Hamlin has been out since March 24 with a compression fracture in his back, putting him at risk of missing the Chase for the Cup.

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340 or at abonifant@cmonitor.com, or via Twitter @dbonifant.)

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