Race Weekend Central

NASCAR Penalties Need To Fit The Crime

”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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