Welcome back to Side By Side. There are always two sides to every story, and we’re going to bring them both, right here, every week. Two of our staff writers will face off on an important racing question … feel free to tell us what you think in the weekly poll and also in the comments section below!
This Week’s Question: Should the appeals board reduce the penalties levied against Matt Kenseth and the No. 20 team for an illegal engine found after Kansas?
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: Rules Are Rules
There’s no reason why NASCAR should lessen the penalties leveled against Matt Kenseth and Joe Gibbs Racing following their victory at Kansas last month. The No. 20 Husky Tools Toyota dominated the STP 400, leading 163 of the 267 laps (that’s 61% of the event) before being caught during post-race inspection with an illegal engine. Even though the infraction seemed minor—a connecting rod that was about three grams lighter than allowed by the NASCAR rulebook—penalties assessed to Kenseth and Gibbs were major.
Once the smoke cleared at NASCAR headquarters, Gibbs, Kenseth, crew chief Jason Ratcliff, and the No. 20 team were fined $200,000 dollars, docked fifty valuable championship points (which meant the 48-points earned at Kansas became a two-point deficit), robbed of a win that could be used for a “wild card” Chase berth, and penalized five manufacturer points. Toss in an assortment of six-race punishments and suspensions for Gibbs (the No. 20 cannot accumulate owner points for six events) and Ratcliff, and year-long probations for all involved, and this was perhaps the harshest penalty ever assessed by NASCAR in the history of the sport.
That’s exactly why NASCAR should keep these penalties right where they are. By decreasing the severity of the punishment, the appeals board would be decreasing the sanctioning body’s level of overall authority. File this notion under the heading “Give an inch, take a mile”.
As Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s Vice-President of Competition said following the Kansas penalties: “It’s not a gray area”.
Did the folks at Toyota who assembled the motor know about the underweight connecting rod? It’s likely they didn’t, but maybe they did. Did Joe Gibbs smile as Kenseth took the checkered flag after his dominating drive that April afternoon? Sure he did, but was it because he knew that the No. 20 Toyota got away with an illegal bit of horsepower? My guess is Gibbs smiled because of the victory, not because of one dodgy rod churning around under his car’s hood.
But what if Toyota, Gibbs, Ratcliff, and Kenseth knew they were using an illegal engine? Following the Kansas debacle, Toyota pulled three motors from their inventory that were slated to power Clint Bowyer’s No. 15 Camry. Did Toyota pull the engines just to play it safe, or was it because of NASCAR’s seemingly Draconian penalties?
NASCAR’s “zero-tolerance” approach to competition this year has changed the racing landscape. Fans, teams, and pundits alike have argued against NASCAR’s treatment of outspoken drivers like Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, and (maybe?) Ryan Newman, but it’s more difficult to argue against a set of scales. The rod weighed what the rod weighed, and that weight failed to meet the specifications as clearly published in the NASCAR rulebook for Sprint Cup engines. If the rule was broken, the penalty should stand.
Sure the penalty leveled against Gibbs and Company is harsh, but what message gets sent if it’s overturned or reduced on appeal? One lesson I’ve learned from a lifetime (so far) in and around motorsports is this: racers are cheaters.
Richard Petty once said, “It’s only cheating if you get caught”. Darrell Waltrip wrote in his autobiography about breaking ten rules so that if inspectors caught five violations, you still had another five advantages to help your cause. Engine specs are concrete numbers—they’re objective in that the specifications are there to be met. Don’t meet the spec? You’re not following the rules. Not following the rules? You’re looking for a competitive advantage, no matter how slight.
As my grandmother used to say, “Spare the rod and spoil the child”— even if the rod was 2.5 grams too light and the children have multiple NASCAR titles to their credit….
Summer Bedgood, Assistant Editor: NASCAR Was Over the Top
The penalties against Matt Kenseth’s No. 20 should absolutely be rescinded—or at least substantially reduced. While I understand that NASCAR doesn’t have a “gray area” when it comes to rules regarding the connecting rods, these penalties are simply too harsh.
First of all, no educated, experienced engineer, crew chief, etc. in the garage area says that there would have been an advantage with just one connecting rod lighter than the others. Whether retired or otherwise, several accomplished individuals in the sport have gone on the public record saying that there was basically zero advantage to be gained by them doing that.
The other question at stake here is intent. If there was no advantage to be gained in their methods, then was it really intentional? Based upon reports from TRD and speculation from other teams, this could have been a simple mistake made long before it ever reached the shop floor at Joe Gibbs Racing.
This leads us to the penalties and I’ll tackle them one by one.
First off was the 50 driver point penalty. Considering the fact that there was little room for intent or advantage, this seems too steep. Perhaps a six point penalty like Martin Truex, Jr. received earlier this year would have been more in line with what was deserved. Basically, NASCAR should have said, “We don’t like what you did but there was no intent to cheat so we’ll go easy.”
Next, was the loss of the three Chase bonus points Kenseth would have received for his win at Kansas. They also took the pole he earned a away as eligibility in the 2014 Sprint Unlimited. Again, there is no proof that this penalty actually helped Kenseth get the pole or win. So why would they take either of these awards away? If it were an issue of horsepower, this would be a different story. Yet when esteemed crew chiefs in NASCAR are saying that it did virtually nothing for them, they shouldn’t lose crucial bonus points and eligibility to run a race that they deserve to run.
Crew chief Jason Ratcliff was also fined $200,000 and suspended for the next six races. I think, to be fair, Ratcliff should receive the same suspension that Penske Racing’s crew members did after John Middlebrook reduced the penalties. As far as the fine, that one is harder to say, but maybe lower it to the $100,000 – $150,000 range.
Finally, car owner Joe Gibbs was docked 50 owner points and had his owner’s license suspended for six races. Neither of these are fair. Again, I think six points would suffice and they need to be allowed to earn points. For an incident that was more than likely an accident, NASCAR really doesn’t need to send this team a message beyond that. It makes more sense to give them a small slap on the wrist and move on.
NASCAR clearly overreacted on this one. They can show JGR and the garage area that they are serious about their rules without attempting to destroy one team’s season.
The right move here would be to drastically reduce the penalties while still upholding some minor points penalties. However, the rare, over the top penalties such as suspending the owner’s license and removing bonus points needs to rescinded. After all, when you look at what JGR gained from the infraction, it wasn’t worth the price they actually had to pay.
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