And while the penalties for breaking any of the guidelines are somewhat subjective, the rules are designed with one purpose in mind: maintaining a level playing field.
Over the last two weeks, NASCAR has dropped the hammer on Penske Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing with penalties that, by most standards, appear over the top — or as driver Matt Kenseth characterized them, “grossly unfair.”
Traditionally, when it comes to altering engines (as was the case with the No. 20 JGR Toyota), fuel or tires, NASCAR does not mess around. Kenseth’s winning engine contained a connecting rod that didn’t meet weight requirements.
The penalties for the No. 20 JGR team include the loss of 50 driver points for Kenseth, 50 owner points for Joe Gibbs along with a six-week suspension for both he and crew chief Jason Ratcliff. Ratcliff was also fined $200,000.
The curious nature of JGR’s penalty, however, stems from the engine itself, constructed by the manufacturer Toyota Racing Development (TRD) in Costa Mesa, which accepted full responsibility for the error.
Ratcliff said there had not been discussion as to who would pay the fine. He just hoped it wasn’t him.
“If I do, I’m going to be broke,” Ratcliff said. “We need to start a relief fund.”
But even Brad Keselowski, who was one of the two Penske drivers busted at Texas on April 14 with illegal suspension parts, believes the repercussions to Kenseth’s crew were harsh. The defending Sprint Cup champion sees a trend that concerns him and others in the garage.
"There’s no doubt that there’s been a pretty significant ratcheting effect to the penalties in the sport," Keselowski said.
"It takes a lot to really surprise me nowadays, whether it was the penalty we received the past week or the one that happened to the Gibbs group. I understand both sides, in a sense, but then again I don’t. I think it’s really tough. What the sport really lacks right now is a way for us to curb fair play, balance the fair play that the sport needs so that our fans can really relate to it without presenting this — I don’t want to call it an illusion — but presenting this almost like a façade as though there’s cheating in the sport.
“I think it’s pretty obvious that when you look at Matt’s issue, the pieces and the parts were not that influential to the performance, and probably didn’t win him the race. I think anyone could probably say that, but, then again, from NASCAR’s side, they know that if you give an inch, you’ve got to give a mile. So it’s basically what we lack in the sport is some kind of proportionate response to manage that. I think that’s really what you’re seeing. It’s a pretty significant penalty.”
Gibbs, Ratcliff, Kenseth and TRD all contend that the error was a mistake and there was no advantage to be gained with a lighter connecting rod. Gibbs seemed particularly interested in defending the company’s motives — or lack thereof.
“For me personally, in my entire life and every decision or just about every decision I’ve made I felt like intent was very important,” Gibbs said. “Whether it was somebody doing something in a situation where somebody has done something maybe against me, the first thing I wanted to know is what was there intent? Was it an accident? Was it a mistake or did they purposely try and do something. Intent to me is I think very important. In this case, I think that’s important to me."
“This motor and what happened — there was not an intent to circumvent the rules or to have an unfair competitive advantage. That was very important to me. I think, like I mentioned, we really value our relationship with NASCAR. We have I think an excellent relationship. When you come to something like this, obviously, it’s a tough thing to go through. I don’t think I could comment on why the penalties were what they were."
As far as NASCAR is concerned, the rules are black and white. Intent is not an issue. The fact that the connecting rod did not meet the minimum weight requirement is an issue.
“We’re not here to judge the performance on any of these penalties, whether they are performance enhancing, but we’re really here just to regulate the rulebook,” said vice president of competition Robin Pemberton. “We got the rules in play. They’re put there a lot of times by NASCAR, but with input from the teams, manufacturers and outside experts and it’s our job to manage those rules and manage that rule book as it relates to the garage area.
“The emphasis, as everyone knows, it’s about safety, it’s about competition and it’s about cost containment … We are strictly here to regulate the rulebook and keep a level playing field for the garage area in which to work and make sure everyone gets a fair chance at competing.”
While JGR will have an opportunity to appeal their penalties on the basis of “intent,” in the interim the sanctioning body has delivered an important message to the rest of the garage to follow the letter of the law.
“I don’t want to be cold about it, but that‘s just the way it is,” Pemberton added. That’s why you have these parameters put into play. They know ahead of time where they’re supposed to be.”
Carl Edwards received the message loud and clear. He “guarantee(s) that everyone” has. Edwards, who was fined 100 owner points and lost crew chief Bob Osborne for six races in 2008 for having the cover off of the oil tank, understands the consequences of penalties to a team, whether there was intent involved or not.
“I don’t want to end up with a penalty like that and I saw when this penalty came out a lot of people referenced the penalty that we received in Las Vegas — I think it was 100 points in 2008 for our oil tank cover,” Edwards said. “That one was a really tough one for us because we simply had a bolt fall out and we ended up with this huge penalty. I believe, I don’t know all the details, but I believe in my heart that’s how the Gibbs folks feel. I don’t think they went out and said, ‘Hey, we’re gonna gain this big advantage here.’
“And I think all of us are on guard and we realize that NASCAR is very, very serious about staying within the rules and the spirit of the rules and that they’ve definitely gotten everyone’s attention in the garage. So we will make sure, along with everyone else, that our car will pass inspection every race and, at the end of the day, as bad as it is to get these big penalties — and I might eat these words a week from now — but this is what you want as a competitor is you want someone to make sure that the field is within the rules all the time and they are sure doing that. Those are serious penalties.”
Although Edwards feels bad for his former Roush Fenway Racing teammate Kenseth, it didn’t stop the driver, who qualified second for the race at Kansas Speedway, to inquire whether he earned the pole for the STP 400 by default.
“When I saw the news I texted Mike Helton right away,” Edwards said. “And I said, ‘All right, cool, we’re in the shootout next year, right? We got the pole.’ And he sent back, ‘LOL!’ I didn’t think it was that funny, but he thought it was funny.”
While NASCAR apparently hasn’t lost its sense of humor, it’s clear that working outside of the rule book is no joking matter.