CHARLOTTE, N.C. – John Middlebrook probably didn't expect to become the central figure in a drama with championship implications when he agreed to become NASCAR's chief appellate officer.
He'd yet to be called upon since his appointment in February to the position that's selected by NASCAR's board of directors and draws a salary of a whopping $1 per year. Now he's finally got a case, and it's a doozy.
Middlebrook will be the judge and jury Tuesday in Richard Childress Racing's last avenue to have the championship-crippling penalty against Clint Bowyer overturned. NASCAR docked Bowyer 150 points because the car he drove to victory Sept. 19 at New Hampshire failed inspection, and a three-member appeals panel last week upheld the penalty.
"I bet he never thought he'd even get a case when he agreed to take the job," joked Jimmy Makar, vice president of Joe Gibbs Racing.
Middlebrook, who retired after 49 years with General Motors in 2008, was hand-picked before this season to replace Charles Strang, who held the position of NASCAR's "National Commissioner" for as long as anyone can remember.
NASCAR wasn't able to pinpoint how long Strang held the position, and the only records officials could find began with the 1999 season. During that 10-year span, Strang heard a grand total of 12 appeals.
So nobody really knows what to expect out of Middlebrook, who seems to fall smack in the middle of the garage when it comes to his NASCAR relationships.
He was GM's vice president of global sales when he retired, a position that put him in contact with everybody who's anybody in NASCAR. Among the six people who honored him in his 2008 retirement ceremony were NASCAR president Mike Helton and Rick Hendrick, owner of NASCAR's most powerful team.
Middlebrook's retirement gift from NASCAR was the role of the pace car driver at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2008, and there's no doubt his role with GM helped him forge a lengthy relationship with Childress, whose teams have fielded Chevrolets since 1969.
His many relationships would seem to make him an impartial judge, but there's an overwhelming public perception that Middlebrook will do nothing more than rubber-stamp NASCAR's ruling.
"I've told Richard it's not worth fighting," Bowyer said. "In my opinion, their minds are made up. It is what it is and if you want to be a part of this great thing we call a sport, you better just go on and enjoy what it is."
His skepticism comes from statistics. Of the 133 appeals heard since 1999, the three-member panel upheld 89 of them, including Bowyer's. Of those 133 appeals, only 12 advanced to Strang, and he upheld eight, reduced three penalties and overturned just one.
Those numbers don't give any competitors much hope, but NASCAR president Mike Helton believes the system is "the best due process in all of sports."
"The inference that it's a kangaroo court, we look at it as a part of human nature: nobody likes to lose an appeal and when you do, you look for reasons why and the accusations that follow are human nature," Helton said. "The fact of the matter is that the process is there, the panel of three is there, and if that doesn't work out you've got one more step to take it to and it's there for you, too.
"For us to be able to control all of that, a panel whose names are public, an appellate officer everybody knows, you couldn't keep that secret. Somebody would tell someone down the line that NASCAR told them how to rule."
Still, there's plenty of people who believe Middlebrook already knows how he'll uphold the penalties based simply on an unwillingness to make such a splashy ruling in a high-profile inaugural case.
Hendrick, who said he's known Middlebrook for 20 years, insists the judge will be fair in hearing the appeal.
"There's just no agenda with him. He's beyond being swayed," Hendrick said. "John will base decisions on the facts and what he thinks is the right thing, not outside pressure. He understands the sport and its issues, and his background and experience give him a unique perspective.
"He's made tough calls throughout his career, so he won't be afraid to do that."
NASCAR isn't sure how Middlebrook will conduct his hearing. He has the right to hear from anyone with a NASCAR license and can order them to testify. There's no timetable for when he must render his decision, and Strang was known to take several days to issue a ruling.
No matter how he rules, Bowyer has already declared his championship hopes over. His win at New Hampshire moved him from last to second in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship standings, and the penalty knocked him back down to 12th.
Caught up in the drama, he admitted his team was off its game the next week at Dover, where he finished 25th. He didn't really rebound Sunday at home track Kansas Speedway, either. Bowyer ran inside the 30s for much of the race before rallying to a 15th-place finish.
Still, he's 252 points behind championship leader Jimmie Johnson, and a reversal of his penalty won't be enough to revive his title hopes. From here, it's just about trying to help Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton, his Richard Childress Racing teammates, win the organization a championship.
"The championship hopes are done for myself. The thing that I have to do is be the best teammate I can be," Bowyer said before Kansas. "We have to bring a championship home. We still have two shots at that."