CHARLOTTE, N.C. — NASCAR has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to engines, tires and fuel on a race car. Anything even slightly improper is dealt with swiftly and severely. NASCAR always throws the book at offenders.
Matt Kenseth and Joe Gibbs Racing were no exception, getting hit with one of the largest penalties in NASCAR history Wednesday after the engine from Kenseth’s race-winning car at Kansas failed a post-race inspection. The team had nothing to do with the error, and manufacturer Toyota immediately accepted responsibility for one of eight connecting rods failing to meet the minimum weight requirement by 3 grams — less than an empty envelope.
"We take full responsibility for this issue with the engine. JGR is not involved in the process of selecting parts or assembling the Cup Series engines," Toyota Racing Development President Lee White said.
It’s been a busy season for NASCAR discipline. In February, Nationwide Series driver Jeremy Clements was suspended after an apparently insensitive remark to an MTV blogger and Denny Hamlin was fined $25,000 for criticizing the new Gen-6 race car.
But in the past week, NASCAR has levied more than $450,000 in fines, suspended nearly a dozen crew members for upcoming points races as it punishes teams for rules violations involving the cars themselves.
Kenseth was stripped of everything but the trophy from Sunday’s win at Kansas.
"Anything to do with the engine, the fuel or the tires is going to be bad," said rival driver Kevin Harvick, who appeared with Clint Bowyer and Elliott Sadler on Wednesday in a softball game between Dover International Speedway and Pocono Raceway.
"It’s always been that way. It’s kind of one of those pet peeves of NASCAR."
Kenseth was docked 50 driver points in the standings — he earned only 48 points for the victory — and NASCAR also erased the three bonus points he earned for the win that would have been applied in seeding for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. In addition, the victory will not be credited toward his eligibility for a wild card berth in the Chase.
So, although Kenseth has two wins on the year, the Kansas win does not count in any form toward Chase eligibility. He lost his pole award, too, which could hurt eligibility for next year’s Sprint Unlimited exhibition race.
The penalty to Kenseth, who held off Kasey Kahne of Hendrick Motorsports to earn his second win of the season, dropped him from eighth to 14th in the standings.
NASCAR also suspended crew chief Jason Ratcliff for six races and fined him $200,000. And in a rare move, car owner Joe Gibbs had his owner’s license suspended for the next six races and he won’t earn car owner points during that time. He also was docked 50 car owner points while Toyota, which supplies the JGR engines through Costa Mesa, Calif.-based TRD, lost five points in the manufacturer standings.
JGR said it would appeal.
"It is our understanding that one of the eight connecting rods on the engine was ruled too light," the statement said. "We are working with our partners at TRD on this issue."
White said Kenseth gained no advantage from the light rod.
"It was a simple oversight on TRD’s part and there was no intent to deceive, or to gain any type of competitive advantage," White said. "Toyota is a company that was built on integrity, and that remains one of the guiding principles of the company. The goal of TRD has always been — and will continue to be — to build high-performance engines that are reliable, durable and powerful, and within the guidelines established by NASCAR."
Elliott Sadler, in his first season driving for JGR’s Nationwide Series team, felt for teammate Kenseth.
"It’s tough if you’re Matt because you don’t have anything to do with the motor. That’s a TRD deal. It’s not a Gibbs deal," Sadler said. "At Gibbs, we don’t even touch the motor. TRD brings the motor in and puts it in. We don’t even get to touch it. That’s a rule. A Gibbs employee doesn’t even touch that."
It’s the second severe penalty against a Sprint Cup team levied by NASCAR in as many weeks.
It was Penske Racing and defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski who were punished last week after NASCAR said it found unapproved parts in the rear suspension of Keselowski and Joey Logano’s cars at Texas. NASCAR docked 25 points each the drivers, fined the crew chiefs $100,000 each and suspended seven Penske employees for six races. Penske Racing’s appeal is scheduled for May 1.
Those penalties were for alterations to the body of the car, particularly in an area NASCAR has been working the last year to police after teams found a way to manipulate the skew of the cars last season. Team owner Roger Penske has maintained the team was not cheating, but "working in a grey area" of the rule book.
It’s not clear if that argument will fly before the three-member appeal board, and the 2013 rule book was specifically tightened this season to add language specific to the rear suspension systems.
In the case of JGR and the engine, illegal is illegal and there is no grey area.
NASCAR has proven that through penalties before. The last violator, Carl Long, was severely punished when he was found to have an illegal engine at the 2009 All-Star Race. Long was docked 200 points — which would be about 50 points under the current points system — fined $200,000 and suspended for 12 races.
His suspension was reduced to eight races on appeal, but Long has said he is unable to pay the fine and can’t work in Sprint Cup until he settles the debt.
"We’ve always known the engine and tires are sacred ground. You don’t mess with the engine or the tires," said former crew chief and current Fox analyst Larry McReynolds, who added that all eight connecting rods would have been light if TRD was trying to cheat.
"This was pure human error," McReynolds said. "But in NASCAR’s defence, they can’t completely determine intent or non-intent. They absolutely should appeal. I’d primarily appeal Ratcliff’s suspension. He was an innocent bystander in this. The engine is a different deal than the rest of the car. If I was Joe Gibbs, I’d be pretty ticked off about losing my crew chief under these circumstances. This was an error but an enormously costly one."
JGR has the means to pay the fine and the personnel to recover from this setback. The appeal would likely be to reduce the penalties on the argument it was TRD that erred and the team had no control or access to assembly of the engine.
Clint Bowyer, a Toyota driver for Michael Waltrip Racing, said it’s unfortunate so many employees are punished by NASCAR for one infraction.
"For the governing body, that’s a difficult situation knowing that a lot of guys that you’re penalizing don’t necessarily have anything to do with what’s inside those frame rails," Bowyer said. "It’s tough. It’s unfortunate for Matt. Obviously it was a shock to all of us."
Kenseth is unlikely to get back his bonus points. NASCAR stripped Carl Edwards of his 10 bonus points under an older scoring system for not having a cover on his oil tank after a 2008 win at Las Vegas. The victory stood, but Edwards was not able to carry the 10 bonus points into the Chase. His crew chief was also suspended six races.