Message to NASCAR: Lighten up

May, 8, 2013

Allow Blount to be blunt on a few things.

NASCAR got a message this week: Loosen up and chill out.

Major penalty reductions came for Joe Gibbs Racing and Penske Racing after NASCAR had basically thrown the book at both organizations.

The JGR reversal Wednesday was a stunner, from a six-race suspension for Jason Ratcliff, Matt Kenseth's crew chief, to only one race. And a huge change to Kenseth's points penalty, from 50 down to 12. He also gets the three Chase bonus points for the win at Kansas reinstated.

This move was the right call, but highly unusual to see the three-person appeals panel (the first level of the NASCAR appeals process) make such a surprising reversal. The one connecting rod that was barely too light (about three grams, the approximate weight of two paper clips) in Kenseth's car was no performance advantage and didn't come from JGR. It was a part from Toyota Racing Development.

Nevertheless, a major penalty revision for any engine violation doesn't happen, until now. It's an indication that NASCAR needs to re-evaluate the severity of some of its punishment decisions.

The JGR decision came one day after chief appellate officer John Middlebrook reduced the suspensions for the Penske Racing team members from six championship races to only two for the rear-suspension violations at Texas.

Losing Ratcliff for only one race is a big help to Kenseth, but losing crew chief Paul Wolfe for only two championship points races instead of six is a much bigger break for Brad Keselowski. Few drivers are as reliant on their crew chief as Keselowski is with Wolfe, arguably the best man on the box in the sport today.

The decision by Middlebrook to reduce the lengths of the suspensions for all the Penske brain trust is much bigger than reducing the lost points or the fines, which he didn't do for Keselowski or Joey Logano's team. The 25-point penalty and the $100,000 hit to each team will remain, but Keselowski and all the Penske guys should be thrilled about the partial reprieve on suspensions.

Middlebrook is proving to be a fair man. When he eliminated most of the penalties on Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 Chevy team last year after the body violations at Daytona, some people accused him of playing favorites with his old buddy, team owner Rick Hendrick. Nonsense.

Middlebrook carefully studies each appeal and listens intently to the arguments being presented. He is not a shill for NASCAR or any team owner. He simply wants to come to a reasonable conclusion.

Middlebrook is not toeing the party line for NASCAR. Neither did the three-person appeals panel Wednesday on the JGR penalties.

No one can claim NASCAR'S appeals process is a kangaroo court. To the contrary, this week's penalty reductions are a message that NASCAR needs to lighten up on its draconian penalties.

No driver has finished on the lead lap of every race this season, which shows how difficult it is to do.

Paul Menard was the only one left until failing to do so Sunday at Talladega. Four drivers have done it in nine of 10 events -- Johnson, Keselowski, Aric Almirola and Menard, but Menard and Almirola are the only drivers in the top 10 who don't have a top-5 finish.

Amirola ranks seventh in the standings after posting four consecutive top-10s, but the one lap he led at Talladega is his only lap led this season. Menard is eighth in the standings with only three laps led.

What does that tell us? Both Almirola and Menard are racing consistently and not making mistakes, but they aren't serious contenders until they can challenge for victories.

Kyle Busch is doing things in the opposite fashion of Menard and Almirola. Busch has an average starting position of 6.4, but an average finishing spot of 16.9, a minus-10.5 and the worst ratio of any full-time driver in Cup.

Busch can win races, as he has proven twice this season. But consistency is lacking. Some of it's bad luck and some of it isn't.

The best start/finish among top-10 drivers is Dale Earnhardt Jr. at plus-5.8 (17.6 to 11.8). Carl Edwards (16.1-10.5) and Almirola (20.4-14.8) are plus-5.6.

By the way, Danica Patrick is a plus-5 with an average starting spot of 31.1 and an average finish of 26.1. But the farther back you start, the easier it is to move up.

Take J.J. Yeley, for example. He's at a plus-7.8 (the best among full-time Cup drivers), starting 37.0 and finishing 29.2.

Futility, thy name is Kvapil. Travis Kvapil has the fewest points of any driver who has made all 10 starts this season. His average finish is 33.7.

Kvapil ranks 37th in the standings, two spots behind AJ Allmendinger, who has only four starts. Kvapil is the only driver to start all 10 races without finishing on the lead lap.

Terry Blount

ESPN Staff Writer


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