Who's Right in Penalty and Illegal Parts Dispute: Matt Kenseth or NASCAR?

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistApril 27, 2013

In an ironic twist, Matt Kenseth won the pole for Saturday night's Sprint Cup race at Richmond, just two days after he and Joe Gibbs Racing were penalized heavily for an improper part following Sunday's win at Kansas.
In an ironic twist, Matt Kenseth won the pole for Saturday night's Sprint Cup race at Richmond, just two days after he and Joe Gibbs Racing were penalized heavily for an improper part following Sunday's win at Kansas.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Call it a photo finish, an unbreakable tie—or perhaps the rarest of situations where both sides are right.

That's how I see the dispute between NASCAR and team owner Joe Gibbs, driver Matt Kenseth and crew chief Jason Ratcliff in light of the engine in Kenseth's Kansas-winning car being found to have an illegal part.

We know the results of NASCAR's penalty hammer coming down with one of the harshest sets of punishments in the sport's history: Kenseth penalized with the loss of 50 championship points (essentially wiping out all the points he earned in Sunday's victory), Ratcliff fined $200,000 and suspended for six races (and on probation until Dec. 31), and Joe Gibbs being assessed one of the rarest punishments of all, a team owner being banned for six races and unable to earn either owner points or manufacturer points.

NASCAR attempted to explain its side for meting out such jaw-dropping penalties on Friday when vice president of competition Robin Pemberton addressed the media in Richmond. While many people may not have agreed with his assessment, Pemberton's explanation was straightforward and understandable, given the circumstances.

While some of you may disagree, I understand NASCAR's reasoning for the harshness of the penalties. The sanctioning body wants the playing field to be as level as possible, with no driver, car, crew chief or owner able to have even a smidgeon of advantage.

That's particularly important with this year's introduction of the Generation 6 Car of Tomorrow. NASCAR has perhaps more invested in this new car than any other in its history.

When the Gen 6 came out, NASCAR promised us better racing, better aerodynamics and more control behind the wheel for the drivers. If you're a race fan, you can't complain about that.

And NASCAR will do whatever it feels is right to maintain the integrity of the car and, equally important, the integrity of the sanctioning body and the overall sport.

Hence the reason for such harsh punishment against the JGR group.

But what many people seem to be missing in this whole situation is that if it hadn't been JGR, it could have been any other team. JGR just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and found with the wrong part in this instance.

Even though Toyota Research and Development chief Lee White told ESPN.com that the one offending part that drew NASCAR's ire and brought about the penalties—just one of eight connecting rods in the Toyota motor in Kenseth's car (the other seven connecting rods were within specifications)—was below weight specifications by the equivalency of "two cotton balls" (roughly just over two grams in weight).

While White insisted there was no competitive advantage to be had by the one offending connecting rod, that it was more a mistake of quality control and inspection than an attempt at cheating or subterfuge, NASCAR would have nothing of it.

Bing, bang, boom, JGR gets hammered.

Kenseth called the penalty "grossly unfair," and it's also easy to see his point of view, if not agree with him. That's what a lot of fans are doing. Even non-fans of Kenseth are still in disbelief at the severity of the penalty and supporting him and JGR when they normally wouldn't.

You would think, then, that if there was no intentional attempt to cheat or deceive, if there was no performance enhancement or advantage, if there truly was a mistake made, that NASCAR would give JGR a pass.

But that's the whole point of why JGR was penalized. Whether innocent or not, whether intentional or not, whether the offending connecting rod came from an unfamiliar parts supplier or fell through the cracks of quality control and inspection, one thing remains first and foremost:

A rule was broken, seriously enough in NASCAR's eyes to warrant a serious response and punishment.

And with NASCAR's zero-tolerance policy, it's easy to understand why the sanctioning body came down on what heretofore had been one of the cleanest racing organizations in the sport's history, run by a man—Joe Gibbs—who is practically above reproach, one of the cleanest and first-class team owners in NASCAR and former NFL football coaches to ever grace the professional sports landscape.

JGR's overall penalty is one about a rule being broken and NASCAR responding in a manner that put all other teams on notice that nothing will be tolerated, not even if unintentional or due to an innocent mistake.

JGR is the second high-profile team and clean ship to be penalized by NASCAR in the last few weeks. Equally one of the other cleanest ships in the sport, Penske Racing is due to have its appeal heard this coming week for what NASCAR determined to be an improper—although not necessarily illegal—rear housing unit in Brad Keselowski's and Joey Logano's cars.

To its credit, NASCAR isn't letting anyone or anything get past its crew of inspectors. While the penalties may seem "grossly unfair," as Kenseth said, its because something was introduced to the engine that shouldn't have been there in the first place—even if it didn't help Kenseth win Sunday's race.

My suspicion is the penalties will be reduced—perhaps in half (Kenseth from 50 to 25 points, Ratcliff from $200,000 to $100,000 and maybe a three-race suspension; likewise a reduced suspension for Gibbs)—when appeals are heard in the coming weeks.

Let's face it, this entire incident has made neither side look good in the court of fan opinion. Even though NASCAR is simply enforcing its rules, to many fans it looks like a heavy-handed ogre.

To others, JGR has come under unwarranted suspicion that perhaps it's been cheating all along, which can't be any farther from the truth.

The only way for either side to save face is to have the penalties reduced enough where it will appease fans and JGR, while NASCAR will show a compassionate side yet still mean business.

We can only hope that's the outcome.

If you're a SiriusXM subscriber, we'll be talking more about this whole controversy Saturday morning on The Frontstretch, from 7-11 am ET on SiriusXM NASCAR Channel 90. Join us in the conversation and call in at 1-866-PIT-LANE!

Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski


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