The Frontstretch: NASCAR Penalties Need To Fit The Crime by Thomas Bowles -- Friday April 26, 2013

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NASCAR Penalties Need To Fit The Crime

Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Friday April 26, 2013


”There is no truth. There is only perception.” Gustave Flaubert

The beauty of sports is that they’re a form of entertainment. You don’t need to know every lap, number, and fact in order to lay back and enjoy the show. That’s why for every diehard, no matter what you’re covering there’s about ten other people who know just enough to get by. Life has a funny habit of getting in the way of these hobbies: kids, work, bills, or even a beautiful Spring Day, which more than half the country experienced on Thursday that clearly supersedes some 30-minute research into the NASCAR Rule Book.

That means most of NASCAR Nation isn’t focused on reading 50 pages of analysis about Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing, and their murderous penalty heard around the world on Wednesday. They don’t have time to look in-depth at a motor, learning the difference between 522 and 525 grams or what makes a connecting rod “tick.” They just look at the gargantuan size of the consequences, the largest in NASCAR history that I can remember and immediately come away with this perception: “If the penalties hold up, Toyota, Gibbs, and Kenseth cheated to the point they won because of this faulty connecting rod.”

Matt Kenseth the No. 20 team were nailed with a 50-point penalty, virtually erasing their victory at Kansas last weekend. Photo courtesy of Rick Lunkenheimer.

Based on what you see on paper alone, how can you come away with any other conclusion? Kenseth, for entering the race at Kansas now has lost himself two points for running this race – a far cry from the 48 he earned for winning it. Joe Gibbs, docked 50 points won’t be able to accumulate anything more for his No. 20 car until Michigan in mid-June. A $200,000 fine, the most assessed to anyone since Carl Long in 2009 isn’t the type of bill you hand out like a Christmas Card. Add in a six-week suspension, for crew chief Jason Ratcliff, no bonus points for the Chase, no pole and you’ve cooked yourself up a rap sheet recipe convicts can’t even match. It’s clear, through what’s been handed down from above these penalties are meant to mirror a serious offense. To borrow from baseball, it’s like Kenseth was on steroids, the tests came back positive and they’re throwing the hammer down. Hard.

There’s only one problem with this whole methodology; for those of us who do work NASCAR for a living, who understand what goes on behind the scenes the chances of three grams underweight giving Kenseth the win are… close to zero. A good source of the site, who’s won NASCAR’s Engine of the Year Award in the past (but wishes to remain anonymous) tells me yes, having a connecting rod too light, as Kenseth’s No. 20 was deemed to have after the race at Kansas was, at best a major oversight. Everyone, he claims knows one of the first things NASCAR checks on your engine is the connecting rod; the weights for those pieces are clearly spelled out and it’s not something you’re going to be able to get away with. Period, end of story… it’s like taking a shower every day. It’s not a part of the checklist officials are going to overlook.

With that said… the difference three grams makes, according to who I’ve talked to in the sport is equivalent to oh, about 0.5 HP. Is that really going to give Kasey Kahne the extra boost he needs to dive under Kenseth on the last lap Sunday? Almost assuredly not. Did it give Kenseth the extra one-lap speed he needed to earn the pole? Another resounding no. While illegal, according to the rules the faulty engine seems more equivalent to a car failing inspection for being too low. It’s a violation, yes, but where the competitive advantage was miniscule, at best and did not affect the overall outcome of the race.

In that scenario, which unfolded for Martin Truex, Jr. at Texas there were no break-the-bank moments, suspensions, or chairs broken over one’s head like the WWE. The penalty, instead seemed a perfect fit for the crime: six points (equivalent to about six positions on the racetrack), a $25,000 fine and no crew chief suspension. Michael Waltrip Racing, knowing they couldn’t prove a malfunction on the car simply accepted the hand they’d been dealt and moved on. Like a 5-yard defensive holding penalty, for football they simply regrouped and realized it’s something they’re able to recover from over the course of an 80-yard regular season drive.

Wednesday’s penalty, for Kenseth in contrast does the equivalent of leaving Joe Gibbs Racing in intensive care. If not for their status as a multi-car organization, $200,000 – plus the possible prize money lost through no owner points for six-plus weeks – would be enough to cripple a team’s future purchases. Just ask Carl Long; the driver, nor his self-owned team have been back on the track since being fined a similar amount for an oversized engine four years ago. How much JGR was involved in the whole process, we’ll never know; Toyota makes their engines but there’s a certain amount of “tweaking” the company does on its own, in the shop. But the competitive advantage, like in Long’s case wasn’t enough to make a difference, leaving everyone involved simply scratching their heads over why such a small violation’s turning into a witch hunt.

“I think the penalties are grossly unfair,” Matt Kenseth said Thursday. “I think it’s borderline shameful. There’s no argument the part was wrong. However, 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 (Joe Gibbs Racing) 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 (crew chief). 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.”

It would appear, then if there’s no real connection to the scope of the violation and its punishment that NASCAR is using this opportunity to send a message. “Owners,” they say, through a piece of paper designed to kill Chase opportunities, “Don’t mess with our templates and our rules.” OK… well who are they aiming that at, exactly? It’s not like there’s a large group participating in misbehavior. The number of car owners, that can win on any given week in NASCAR you can count on less than two hands to begin with.

That means the message winds up muddled… and making people mad. This month, through their actions on Gibbs and Roger Penske the sanctioning body has succeeded in alienating two of its top-tier participants. How is “overdoing it,” in the name of getting people in line good for anyone? Especially in the case of Gibbs, who has important links to the non-NASCAR athletic community and whose words still carry a hell of a lot of weight. Another source explained that he spoke to some NFL folk, early Thursday including someone who was considering getting into ownership. The general gist? NASCAR was making fools of themselves, going against one of their own and respect was at an all-time low. “Radioactive” was the term best describing the mood of the day.

But where I feel the worst, about this whole situation is for Kenseth and the way his win will now be perceived. Sure, it’s one thing to put jet fuel in your engine, like Michael Waltrip did at Daytona all those years ago. Bring a motor to the track making 50 extra horsepower, illegally? Throw the book so hard at the guy it rips in half over his head. But to risk a team’s reputation, along with their long-term championship outlook on a three-gram difference in weight that didn’t even generate one extra horsepower? Doesn’t that seem a little extreme to you?

That contradiction is bound to, at best leave NASCAR fans a little bit confused. Or maybe it won’t. For thousands upon thousands of them, they’ll look at Kenseth, Joe Gibbs, the No. 20 Toyota and say simply, “They cheated.” There will be no further explanation needed; the damage, in an ADD world has already been done.

But as for those owners, hit hard by NASCAR’s wrath I predict there will be no such surrender. Earlier this year, after Denny Hamlin’s $25,000 fine for speaking his mind Joe Gibbs and his own sponsors stood by their driver. It’ll be interesting to see how much they stand up now, in the face of authority along with Roger Penske now that they’re the ones being unfairly punished. After all, there’s another famous quote about perception; the only way to easily adjust it is through power.

Perhaps the only way for the right punishments, to fit the right crimes is for these owners to start standing up and using theirs.

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Today on the Frontstretch:
NASCAR Easter Eggs: A Few Off-Week Nuggets to Chew On
Five Points To Ponder: NASCAR’s Take-A-Breath Moment
Truckin’ Thursdays: Top Five All-Time Truck Series Drivers
Going By the Numbers: A Week Without Racing Can Bring Relief But Kill Momentum


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04/26/2013 03:12 AM

I find it hard to believe that 1 connecting rod being 3 grams light would add any HP because it would unbalance the engine.

Also, add in Kenseth’s statement that the combined total of all the connecting rods was over the regulated weight, it makes me think that the engine must have been seriously unbalanced. Either that, or they are making up for the weight difference in other ways. Who knows for sure?

But it would seem to me that Toyota not producing equal weight connecting rods is a rather weird problem. Are they doing this on purpose because that they have found some way to cheat? I really would like to know.

And the penalty for this is just outrageous. I, literally, haven’t watched more than a few NASCAR races a year for the past several years now because of all this WWE type BS. …but I do still get the Frontstretch news letter :) just to see if things are getting better. And IMO, they are just getting worse and worse.

04/26/2013 08:49 AM

This is not the first time Nascar has gone after Toyota.

I predicted that if Toyota won too many races, that Nascar would go fishing and find something.

The whole thing makes me sick. And it’s hard for me to understand why Toyota, the sponsors, or the owners/teams would seemingly just sit back and take it.

Honestly, I’m hanging on to Nascar by the tip of my nails. Maybe it’s because I miss the Winston Cup days and my youth. But Nascar seems to be getting more and more biased and outrageous.

I left Nascar for a few years in the early 2000’s but came back hoping to rekindle my love of racing. Only to see this kind of crap year after year.

My heart is broken and I’m one step away from leaving for good. It’s not an easy decision.

04/26/2013 08:53 AM

Like I’ve said before, this just ensures another Hendricks cup championship. Cheatin’ chad is laughing all the way to the bank. What nascrap did to JGR IS shameful.

04/26/2013 09:01 AM

There has to more to this than meets the eye. NASCAR may have had enough grey area issues at Gibbs racing and this is a message to them. As I said, the owner suspended must mean something no one at NASCAR is talking about.

04/26/2013 09:09 AM

Jason Ratcliff is reputable? Remember the magnet under the throttle? Remember when the self-professed Christian would lie to the face of a reporter about KyB’s ultra-tweaked NNS car? Matt hasn’t paid much attention to this man over the years. He “talks” a clean game, but doesn’t walk it.

awww shucks
04/26/2013 09:37 AM

I do recall Carl Long’s penalty for having an engine, which he leased/purchased from engine builder ernie Elliot. His fine was $200,000 as well and a 12 race suspension. the suspension was reduced to 8 races but he could not afford the fine and basically ended his nascar career. IF NASCAR doesn’t uphold the JGR penalty then why not cry favortism? Carl’s block was .17 cubic inches TOO BIG. In the scope of things very minimal but it ended his career. I hope nascar shows no favortism on the penalty and Toyota Racing is held to the same standards as the other racing teams

04/26/2013 09:49 AM

I got married a few years back and my wife was not a nascar fan. It took me a while to get her to start watching races with me and she was starting to like certain drivers, teams, etc.

I was hoping to take her to a race because THAT’S where to really get into nascar…AT the track.

Granted, she doesn’t understand all that goes into nascar, but she DOES understand fairnes, playing by the rules, etc.

She is now DONE with nascar after what was done to Joe Gibbs. And I can’t blame her. I’m sick of trying to explain away things to keep her interest. Or mine.

Carl D.
04/26/2013 10:34 AM

Perception can be a mighty thing, but I’ll give all but the most casual of Nascar fans enough credit to see these penalties against the #20 team for what they are… a heavy-handed move by Nascar to quash a championship-caliber team that doesn’t race Chevys with a Hendrick Motorsports sticker on the fender. That’s MY perception anyway.

Even Darrell Waltrip has said the penalties are way too severe. Granted, he said it in the nicest possible way so as not to risk ruining his reputation as Nascar’s shoe-shine boy, but it’s got to be hard for DW to balance his Nascar loyalty with his Toyota bias.

If these penalties are upheld and cost Kenseth the championship, I’m done. After 54 years of being a lifetime Nascar fan, that should say something. Nascar doesn’t even try to hide their bias anymore. It’s disgusting, and like JP above, I’m close to calling it quits.

04/26/2013 11:12 AM

Carl D. – You and I are on the same page! Sometimes I wonder if NASCAR cares at all what their reputation is so long as they’re making headlines.

04/26/2013 12:09 PM

Perhaps Penske and Gibbs should talk to the Smith family about another sanctioning body being formed.
If Penske and Gibbs leave for another racing series, it leaves Hendricks and Roush as the only 2 super teams and Roush is fading.

04/26/2013 12:10 PM

I am very upset with the way that NASCAR has been handing out penalties lately. Most of them are grossly unfair. In my opinion they are removing anyone who might be a threat to Jimmy Johnson winning his 6th championship. I understand that teams try to get the most out of the requirements that they can and may stretch things a bit. However, I do not think any crew chief but Chad Knaus deliberately goes outside the box to bend the rules. He has proven it on several occasions and got his penalties repealed on his last offense because of Hendrick’s friendship to the one making decisions. I think both Kenseth’s, Hamlin’s, and Keslowski’s penaltys were too harsh, especially Kenseth’s and Joe Gibbs. I am sure that they did not know that they were way outside the rules. They do not operate this way.
If NASCAR is trying to make sure that Jimmy Johnson wins the championship then what better way than to penalize all his competition! They are definitely making sure of his 6th! If this happens, I am not going to watch NASCAR any more. I really enjoy watching the races, but I do not enjoy watching the partiality that is going on!

04/26/2013 12:12 PM

NASCAR likes to project the image that it is untouchable. And for all practical purposes it is. But like most everyone NASCAR is chasing the all mighty dollar. To get their attention I would estimate about a 40-50 percent sustained drop in attendance as a boycott to protest their policies. Also if Miller, Pennzoil and Home Depot would just leave the sport in disgust would get their attention too. But NASCAR knows the fans are not united enough to pull off such a move. One has to wonder just how long sponsors will tolerate NASCAR´s policies. Remember Mars Candy didn’t want to associate with Kyle Busch after his stupid move at Texas in 2011. So image is important to them. Somehow NASCAR has to humbled in some way.

Joe in The Bronx
04/26/2013 12:28 PM

In lieu of an actual DQ, penalties like this are necessary and keep the teams in check. At this point it may be more responsible and simpler for Nascar to dole out DQ’a instead of having to hear this ridiculous “penalties are to severe verbiage”. It seems there’s this quick rush to criticize Nascar for policing the sport. The car was illegal, the conversation ends there. Nascar has made it consistently clear over the years that tampering with a motor (regardless of possible performance advantage) will be dealt with harshly. In most penalty cases Nascar is doing the teams a favor by not pulling the DQ card and just assigning points penalties for post race illegalities. If Nascar truly wanted to be harsh and draconian all post race illegalities would incur a DQ with loss of all points, money, etc…end of all discussion.
Nascar hands out severe penalties like this keep the participants in line and that’s what the sanctioning body is there for. They need to send this message to ensure the participants know who’s in charge. If not then you will have owners rising up and disputing, overpowering the sanctioning body and eventually you end up like American open wheel racing, 30+ years of disarray.

04/26/2013 01:50 PM

I hate to defend NASCAR, but they established long ago zero-tolerance for engine violations (e.g. Petty in the 80s and Carl Long). Maybe it’s overstated, but I’m sure they feel that if they allow any tolerance or grey area in the engine, teams will exploit it fully and it will get out of hand fast.

04/26/2013 02:31 PM

Their guilty …Penaltys to severe..(fine with taking away the win-pole & points) Nascar IS sending a message…They won’t be able to back down on this without backing down on Penskes & vice versa (politics)..But they are guilty..(heck I’d be more concerned that some one found a way to balance an engine better using a light & a heavy)..Yes I’m a Kenseth fan

04/27/2013 12:18 AM





04/27/2013 11:50 AM

If this was a penalty and fine to Robby Gordon there would be no problem. No one would be writing or talking about it. What a difference for the chosen few.


Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

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