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Drew Bonifant: A loss of power for NASCAR

NASCAR’s seeing the consequences of its month-long power trip.

The association had a pair of rule-benders in Penske Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing last month and brought a sledgehammer down on both of them. Suspensions. Fines. Points. Right or wrong, NASCAR was taking a stance, and trying to make a point.

The only problem for the country’s premier racing organization is that there’s an appeals process, and as it turns out, that process is more than just a formality. Gibbs was let off the hook. Penske had its punishment reduced. And NASCAR, which tried to get away with bullying two of its most recognizable teams, got called out on it.

It’s a black eye for the association in its pursuit to be perceived as fair and objective, but it’s one that many could see coming from the moment the sentences were handed down. The 25-point dockings and six-race crew suspensions for Penske’s Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano had their detractors, but the punishment handed to Joe Gibbs Racing caused the real uproar.

After winning the race in Kansas, Matt Kenseth was docked 50 points in the Sprint Cup standings, and Gibbs and crew chief Jason Ratcliff were suspended six races. All for an engine part that was three grams overweight, and which was the fault of the manufacturer – Toyota – rather than the team itself.

It’s unfair, Kenseth, Gibbs and fans across the country said. And the National Stock Car Racing Appeals Panel agreed.

The Gibbs penalties were slashed, from 50 points to 12 and from six races to one (for Ratcliff) and zero (for Gibbs). Even at Penske, whose defense that it was working within a “gray area” was far weaker than Gibbs’s, chief appellate officer John Middlebrook knocked the suspensions from six races to two.

By the end of the ordeal, NASCAR had gone from looking like an iron-fisted, zero-tolerance body to one that, without the ability to counter-appeal, could only sit and watch as its power was openly compromised.

It’d be understandable if this was the first instance of NASCAR going over the top in punishing a driver, team or owner, but it isn’t. Three penalties issued by the sanctioning body have been overturned in two years, and good luck finding someone who took NASCAR’s side when it fined Denny Hamlin a whopping $25,000 for merely saying that the new Gen-6 car didn’t run as well as hoped at Phoenix.

It’s one thing for NASCAR to carry out its draconian rules and regulations, but it’s quite another when they’re carried out for little rhyme or reason (see Hamlin), and even more so if those rules and regulations can immediately be shot down (see Penske and Gibbs). NASCAR’s power was limited as a result, and continued defeats on appeal don’t do it any favors with future punishments.

Sometimes drivers and teams will figure an appeal isn’t worth the time and trouble. If this keeps up, NASCAR will see each of its rulings brought through the process. And if the sanctioning body continues to overlook intent in favor of teaching a lesson, Gibbs won’t be the only one coming out a winner.

Red-hot Busch

One year ago, NASCAR made a competitive change by barring full-time Sprint Cup drivers from earning points in Nationwide Series races and stealing them from the drivers who were racing full-time in that circuit.

Good thing. Otherwise, no one would be catching Kyle Busch this year.

Busch has gotten to victory lane early and often this year, winning two Sprint Cup races, as well as a third in the second Budweiser Duel. He’s been even more remarkable when he’s double-dipped and raced in the Nationwide circuit, finishing first five times in his last seven races. The two races he didn’t win he sure tried to, finishing third and second.

His performance in Sprint and Nationwide means he hasn’t gone more than three weeks without winning a race, and both times he won in Sprint, he won in Nationwide as well to complete the sweep. He’s looking for more consistency this season in Sprint Cup, where he was 10th in the standings heading into last night’s race at Darlington, but the speed without question is there for Busch.

Three up

∎ Matt Kenseth: Things are good for the guy in the No. 20 car. He got to thumb his nose at NASCAR’s sanctioning body, his win at Kansas counts toward the standings again and, with four top-10s in his last four races, including a win in last night’s race, things have been working on the track as well.

∎ Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: Little by little, the rook is figuring it out. Finishes of 11th, 16th and 13th (entering Darlington) won’t set the world on fire, but they show Stenhouse is gaining consistency. He’s also led laps in two of the last three races, after leading only one over his first seven races.

∎ David Ragan and David Gilliland: Sure, there’s some creative math here, but both drivers deserve credit for working together to give Ragan the win and little Front Row Motorsports the top two spots at Talladega.

Three down

∎ Kasey Kahne: A red-hot start gave way to 21st- and 42nd-place finishes at Richmond and Talladega, respectively, that dropped him to seventh in the standings. It might just be a hiccup, or then again, the magic could be wearing off.

∎ Kevin Harvick: One race after winning in Richmond, disaster struck as Happy completed only 47 laps and finished way, way back in 40th.

∎ Danica Patrick: That eighth-place run at Daytona feels like it was ages ago. She’s finished worse than 20th in all but one of the races since, and worse than 30th three times. She’s hardly alone (teammates Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman are 22nd and 17th, respectively, in the standings), but the transition to the elite stock car series has certainly included the bumps in the road that many expected it would.

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

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