If Matt Kenseth believed his fresh start at Joe Gibbs Racing would also include a bit more favorable treatment from the sanctioning body, reality quickly set in on Wednesday.
After his engine failed post-race inspection last week, NASCAR nailed the No. 20 team with the reduction of 50 driver points and a six-week suspension for crew chief Jason Ratcliff and team owner Joe Gibbs, along with a $200,000 fine for Ratcliff and the inability to collect owner points during the hiatus.
While Kenseth accepts that his team broke the rules by having one of its connecting rods measure less than NASCAR’s mandated weight, the 2003 Sprint Cup champ considers the penalties “grossly unfair.”
“It’s borderline shameful,” Kenseth said. “There’s no argument the part was wrong. They weighed it and it was wrong. However, there is an argument that there certainly was no performance advantage. If you can find any unbiased, reputable, knowledgeable engine-builder and if they saw the facts, what all the rods weighed. The average weight of all the rods was well above the minimum — 2.5 (grams) above the minimum at least. There was one in there that was way heavy.
“There was no performance advantage, there was no intent, it was a mistake. JGR had no control over it. Certainly to crush Joe Gibbs like that — to say they can’t win an owner’s championship with the 20 this year is just, I can’t wrap my arms around that, it just blows me away. And the same with Jason Ratcliff, I don’t feel bad for myself, at all, but for Jason and Joe, I just couldn’t feel any worse. There’s no more reputable, honest hard-working guys with good reputations more so than those two — I feel really bad for them."
When Kenseth says the team “had no control” over the situation, he’s right. Toyota Racing Development, based in Costa Mesa, Calif., supplies engines to both JGR and Michael Waltrip Racing. However, it’s always been NASCAR’s stance that the owner of the car and the crew chief are culpable for any infraction.
Still, despite semantics, the severity of the penalty indicates that NASCAR will not tolerate any discrepancies in engine construction.
It’s a bitter pill for Kenseth to swallow considering that his second win on Sunday had elevated the No. 20 team to eighth in the points standings, 59 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson. After Kenseth was assessed the 50-point penalty, he fell to 14th in the points standings.
And while Kenseth certainly has the will and talent to overcome the deficit, if he makes the Chase for the Sprint Cup, the three bonus points from last week’s win at Kansas will not figure into his points tally nor would the win count should he need to rely on one of the two wild-card positions (11th or 12th in the standings).
"It’s a huge penalty this year,” Kenseth said. “We already have two DNFs and we were just starting to get back up in the points. It’s still early. I feel like honestly I have the strongest race team in the garage. So, I think if anybody can come back from it and get us in a spot to have a shot at winning a championship — it’s my group. But, with that being said, if the penalties are upheld with pulling Coach Gibbs’ license for six weeks and not collecting any owner’s points — when that time is over we’ll be about 35th in owner points. Obviously, it’s impossible to win an owner’s championship.”
However, with Kenseth’s pragmatic view, he realizes there’s more to the penalty than simply a loss of points.
“There are a lot of really bad things that go with being that far back in points, including provisionals and having something happen in qualifying, where you’re parked, when you’re teched, how much you get in practice — there’s a lot of things that go with that that are bad,” Kenseth said. “That’s the thing I feel the worst about. I think the penalty to Coach, because it’s something he knew nothing about. It was not a performance advantage.
“To say you can’t win an owner’s championship with this car this year, I just think that for a guy who has been the biggest supporter to NASCAR for the last 22 years, man that’s a tough one to figure out."
On Wednesday, JGR announced it will appeal the fines. Considering that Kenseth has never experienced NASCAR’s appellate process, he’s not quite sure what to expect.
“We’ll just go through that and see what happens and see whatever the final verdict is — we’ll have to live with that and move on,” Kenseth said.
For now, Kenseth will concentrate on what he can control — driving the race car.
"Well, I don’t think there’s any more we can do,” Kenseth said. “My team has done an incredible job this year as far as performance. We’ve ran better than I could have ever dreamed. We don’t have all the finishes, but yet we do have two wins. I think it’s business as usual. I think we have to put it behind us and hope the appeals process works and we get some people in there to look at everything that are reasonable and hopefully get the penalties at least reduced some. I think other than that, we put it behind us.
“I get to work with Jason this weekend and go out and try to win a pole and try to win the race and just go with that attitude every week and just try to do the things we know how to do and keep trying to grow as a race team, and just try to get better."