If anyone had doubt that NASCAR isn't serious about keeping the Sprint Cup Series on as level of a playing field as possible, Wednesday's huge penalties against Matt Kenseth, crew chief Jason Ratcliff and team owner Joe Gibbs are more than abundant proof that NASCAR isn't messing around.
As a matter of procedure, NASCAR typically confiscates the winning car after each race, takes it back to its Concord, N.C. research and development center, and then tears it apart to make sure everything is up to snuff and that there was no cheating or subterfuge.
More often than not, everything is fine.
But that wasn't the case after Kenseth's car that won Sunday at Kansas was inspected. NASCAR found that a connecting rod within the engine—just one rod out of eight, mind you—was too light and in violation of rules.
How light was the offending part? Three or four pounds, perhaps?
Try more like 2.7 grams underweight from the required minimum mandate of 525 grams.
Toyota Research and Development chief Lee White put the weight differential in better perspective, an equivalent of "two cotton balls," he told ESPN.com.
"One part came in 2.7 grams underweight, and somehow made it through our processes and ended up unfortunately in an engine that was selected to be weighed," White told ESPN.com.
White told ESPN.com that the steel connecting rod, which connects the crankshaft and piston, must weigh a minimum of 525 grams.
White said Joe Gibbs Racing—even though it was the one that took the big hit on penalties—was not at fault whatsoever.
"This is a total screw-up on our part,'' White said. "I'm not going to point fingers at anybody. This is on my head. We neglected to double- and triple-check a shipment of parts from a European vender."
He added, "(we take) full responsibility for this issue."
Kenseth was docked 50 points—essentially wiping out all the points he earned in Sunday's victory and then some—and dropped from eighth in the standings to a tie for 14th with Jeff Gordon as a result.
But it was Ratcliff who fell on the sword the most. Not only is he suspended for six races plus the May 18 Sprint All-Star race, he was also fined $200,000 and will be on probation through Dec. 31 after he returns from his suspension.
And then there's team owner Joe Gibbs, who has run a clean ship both as an NFL head coach and a NASCAR team owner. In what could be the darkest—and one of the very few—marks on his otherwise unblemished career, Gibbs suffered one of the biggest humiliations an owner can suffer in the sport, having his owner's license suspended for six races (plus the All-Star event).
That means Gibbs won't be anywhere to be found this Saturday at Richmond or for the six other races (including the All-Star race) after that. In addition, he won't be eligible to earn owner points in those races and lost an additional 50 owner points because of the violation.
TRD, which oversees Toyota's racing effort in NASCAR, also lost five points in the manufacturer standings.
By all accounts, this was about as honest a mistake as you'll find in NASCAR, but it also shows the sanctioning body will not allow anyone to bend the rules—unintentionally or otherwise.
This is zero tolerance, NASCAR style.
Sadly, JGR's reputation is now likely soiled in the minds of at least some fans. Some may even go so far as to lump JGR in with other teams that have bent—if not outright broken—rules.
Kenseth is one of the cleanest, most respected drivers in the garage. Ditto for Ratcliff when it comes to respect from his crew chief peers.
Neither man cheated in this instance. Neither man bent or blatantly broke the rules, from all appearances.
They simply fell victim to a quality control check—or failure thereof.
Are the penalties to all these men too harsh? You can make a case for that. But this is NASCAR's game and they have rules to protect the integrity and equality of the sport.
Even if a mistake is made, someone has to be penalized. Look at the airline industry: If someone made an inadvertent and completely innocent mistake that led to a crash where many people perished, could the person who made the innocuous mistake simply throw up his arms and meekly say, "Whoops, my bad. Sorry."
If anything, Wednesday's penalties are a reaffirmation that NASCAR will hold each and every individual in the sport accountable, even if there was no malice on their part.
Because Ratcliff has already appealed his penalty, he will be atop Kenseth's pit box Saturday night at Richmond. It's unclear if Kenseth, Gibbs and TRD will also appeal their penalties. No date has been set for Ratcliff's appeal as yet.
"This has zero to do with Joe Gibbs Racing, nothing to do with Jason Ratcliff, nothing to do with Matt Kenseth,'' White said. "Zero. Having said that, everyone understands the way the rules are structured the team takes the heat.
"Thank the Lord we do have an appeals process. Hopefully, that will be a fair hearing.''
One must wonder if someone ratted out JGR to NASCAR, much like the believed perception that someone did the same with Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, whose cars were found to have improper rear housings. Their appeal is to be heard next Wednesday.
After all, Sunday was JGR's fourth win in the last six races of the eight races to date this season, two by Kenseth and the other two by Kyle Busch.
White said the wayward part gave Kenseth "zero" competitive advantage.
"Absolutely not any possible way this is a performance advantage," White said. "You would not do this for performance. You certainly would not do it here and do it in only one of the eight rods. This isn't a gray area. It's black and white. This should never have happened. It's a total screw-up on my end."
Somehow, I think a lot of people will look at cotton balls in a whole different way from now on.
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