NASCAR has always been a sport where teams push the envelope. Whether that’s a team trying to squeak something by inspection or a team trying to get the slightest advantage in the gray area of the rule book, innovation and outside the box thinking has always been something teams have tried.
Fast forward to the 2017 season and while pushing the envelope has become increasingly more difficult as the years go by, Team Penske found another way to try and gain an advantage even though the team was handed a bad situation.
Following March’s Camping World 500 at Phoenix International Raceway NASCAR handed down infractions to two teams stemming from rule infractions. As a result, they suspended two crew chiefs. One was Rodney Childers who was suspended for one race for a violation found at NASCAR’s R&D center on Wednesday. Childers’ employer, Stewart-Haas Racing, immediately filed an appeal of the penalty. Although the appeal was never heard the team dropped the appeal and Childers missed last Sunday’s race at Martinsville.
Also, penalized after the Phoenix race was Brad Keselowski’s crew chief Paul Wolfe. Wolfe’s penalty was a lot stiffer than Childers. A violation found after the race on Sunday resulted in a three-race suspension for Wolfe along with a fine and a major points penalty for the team and Keselowski. Team Penske initially decided not to appeal the penalty and Wolfe sat out the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway the following week. However, before Martinsville, the team had changed their mind and decided to appeal the penalty. This ensured that Wolfe would be on the pit box for Keselowski at Martinsville and the No. 2 team gave Team Penske their first win at the Virginia paperclip since 2004.
The decision to appeal the penalty a week after not appealing it was an interesting one. It’s something I’ve never seen before and I honestly thought there was a rule against doing that. Team Penske knew there wasn’t a rule against and took advantage of it.
It was puzzling why Team Penske decided to do that in the first place. Was it possible the team discovered something and they thought they could win the appeal? Maybe, but then I realized something. Martinsville is a very important track on the Cup schedule. Not only is it one of just three short tracks on the circuit but Martinsville’s second race is the first race of the third round in NASCAR’s playoffs, a crucial race if a team wants to win a championship. Having your regular crew chief on the pit box for a race that features an event in NASCAR’s playoffs is a big deal. Sure, Brian Wilson could relay the information to Paul Wolfe but it’s different than Wolfe being there.
This weekend’s race is at Texas Motor Speedway and the appeal filed by Team Penske will not be heard until after this Sunday’s race. Texas Motor Speedway has just undergone a reconfiguration and repaving project. This weekend’s race is the first time the cars will hit the track with the new pavement. It’s a crucial weekend for all teams. The notebook is very thin for teams and Team Penske can only benefit from having Wolfe there at the racetrack.
You have to wonder if Team Penske strategically planned their appeal so Wolfe could be at the racetrack for two tracks that are in the NASCAR playoffs. Even if they lose their appeal, the next two races following Texas are at Bristol and Richmond. Both of those tracks have second dates that are not in the NASCAR playoffs.
Is it a coincidence that Team Penske just happened to have their crew chief back for two tracks that are in the playoffs? I don’t think so. These teams are too smart. This was methodical. This was intentional. Team Penske snookered NASCAR.