Race Weekend Central

What’s Vexing Vito – Another Week, Another Wednesday Whacking

Another week, another round of penalties. While some felt NASCAR threw the book at Penske Racing last week for their whacky variable geometry (i.e, moveable) rear end housing, they went and pulled the entire library down on Matt Kenseth and Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 Wednesday, like Mel Gibson yanking down that stilt house with his One-Ton Dually in Lethal Weapon 2. 50 driver and owner points, $200,000 fine for crew chief Jason Ratcliff, and a six week vacation for the team leader as well.

The infraction? One of the connecting rods was found to be 3 grams lighter than the maximum allowable weight. Naturally, things measured and sold by the gram tend to be more valuable and costly, but to further grind salt in the wounds, JGR doesn’t even build their own engines anymore – they are sourced from Toyota Racing Development. The switch to TRD occurred midway in 2011 when the Gibbs team was blowing motors left and right, and with the advent of EFI on the horizon and the cost savings that would likely be realized, the switch was made.

The result? Denny Hamlin won five races and finished sixth in the standings, while Kyle Busch blew only two engines, and had the best Chase performance of his career – except he wasn’t in it. With this violation, not even the Rav4 Genie can snap her fingers and make this one disappear. Toyota has a had a rough go of it the past few years, from unintended acceleration, to now quality control at late 1970’s Chrysler levels for their engine shop that supplies not only JGR but also MWR power plants.

One thing NASCAR doesn’t tolerate – and to their credit they’ve been consistent with – no messing with tires, engines, or fuel. In this case though, what exactly was the performance advantage to be gained? One con rod was light three grams? Unless Toyota has found some new and innovative way to reduce harmonics or balance the engine differently when it’s leaned over in a corner, there’s not much if anything. And if the engine is out of balance and harmonic disturbance is generated, you’ll end up with what happened to the No. 20 at Daytona this year – engine failure from the transmission being installed slightly off-kilter.

And while this may seem like a tough pill to swallow for Kenseth, Gibbs, JGR, and TRD, let’s put things in perspective. This was a race-winning engine with a team that obviously has momentum and should be able to still make The Chase without much trouble. This isn’t Carl Long, whose life has been turned upside down, due to his worn out, used engine measuring .40 inches over the limit – while down 50 plus horsepower, some four years ago, and being fined $200,000. The guy still isn’t allowed in the garage area for having garbage equipment with approximately 0% chance of being competitive.

Johnny Sauter on the Truck Series side of things was fined 25 points Wednesday and crew chief Joe Shear was sat down for four races and fined $10,000. The four race suspension for Shear is significant, as the Series only races 18 more times this year; their schedule is 11 races shorter than the Cup schedule. It knocks Johnny Sauter out of the points lead and into a tie with rookie Jeb Burton, and moving Kansas winner Matt Crafton into the points lead. With all the wrecking going on Sunday, why would you want more fuel and be forced to stay out there longer on old tires. If anything they should have been monkeying with the rear spoiler. Like adding a foot to it.

Don’t expect the penalty train to lose speed anytime soon. NASCAR has made their fanatical hatred of anything remotely askew with their new car abundantly clear. The only problem is, Talladega is next up on the schedule following Richmond, and if there’s a place where teams pull out all the stops to eek out another few extra horsepower – aero or otherwise – it’ll be at Daytona or Dega.

The only thing at this point, two of the more prominent teams have already been affected by penalties personnel wise. Nobody can risk having their team gutted the way Penske did, particularly those who are either trying to make it into The Chase on points, or hold onto the position that they have at the moment. With the Summer Stretch around the corner, nobody can risk sitting at home for six weeks.

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