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Kenseth lashes out at 'grossly unfair' penalty

26 April 2013

Matt Kenseth didn't hold back when asked what he felt about the penalties that NASCAR imposed on his Joe Gibbs Racing team mid-week, after a single one of eight connecting rods in the #20 car's Toyota engine was found to be too light.

“The penalties are grossly unfair,” Kenseth said on Thursday during a scheduled media availability at Richmond International Raceway ahead of this weekend's Sprint Cup race. “It's borderline shameful."

Kenseth has lost 50 points in the Sprint Cup championship, and the #20 car has also been stripped of the same amount of owner points. Joe Gibbs himself has been told his owner licence for the #20 has been suspended for the next six Cup events meaning it will earn no more points in the interim, while the crew chief Jason Ratcliff has been handed a six-race suspension and a $200,000 fine despite having no direct control or responsibility for, as the engine is supplied ready-assembled by Toyota Racing Development.

"All the engine work is done in Costa Mesa, California,” Kenseth explained. “JGR does have a Nationwide engine shop but they do not work on or even look at any Cup engines ... They show up on a truck or an airplane, get taken out and get bolted in the car.

"JGR had no control over that. To crush Joe Gibbs like that and say they can't win an owners championship with the #20 this year, I just can't wrap my arms around that," he said. "It just blows me away. The same with Jason Ratcliff. I don't feel bad for myself at all. But for Jason and Joe, I couldn't feel any worse.

"You're going to have people that know absolutely nothing about the whole situation and call you 'cheaters," he fumed. "There's no more reputable, honest, hard-working guys with good reputations more so than them two. I feel really bad for them."

"We raise our hand and say, 'I'm responsible for this race car from the time we get to the racetrack to the time we get through post-race inspection,'" Ratcliff himself told Sirius/XM Radio on Wednesday. "[But] the reality of it is ... there's no way one individual could put his finger on every part and piece."

However, Ratcliff was convinced that given Kenseth's form so far since the driver joined JGR at the start of 2013, the heavy penalties did not mean the end of their championship hopes: "Fifty points is something I feel strongly we can overcome," he said. "I think we'll continue to go out each week and be successful. In a few weeks, it'll be a thing of the past and be right back where we belong."

"I think if anybody can come back from it and get us in a spot to have a shot at winning a championship, it's my group," agreed Kenseth. "Honestly, I feel like I have the strongest race team in the garage."

In all probability, the infraction uncovered by NASCAR wouldn't have given the #20 any significant edge in competition last weekend.

"There was certainly no performance advantage if you can find any unbiased, reputable, knowledgeable engine builder and they saw the facts," insisted Kenseth. "There was no performance advantage. There was no intent. It was a mistake."

“It's pretty obvious that when you look at Matt's issue, the pieces and the parts were not that influential to the performance, and probably didn't win him the race,” agreed reigning Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski, whose own Penske Racing team is currently appealing heavy penalties for a technical infraction at Texas, the week before Kansas.

“I think anyone could probably say that," added Keselowski. "But then again, from NASCAR's side, they know that if you give an inch, you've got to give a mile ... It's just a question of whether the penalty fits the crime."

For its part, Toyota Racing Development has accepted full responsibility for the engine not passing a post-race stripdown following Kenseth's win at Kansas last Sunday, after an underweight third-party component ended up being used.

“Totally our fault," admitted TRD President Lee White. "We've never, ever, never, not once, discussed going under the minimum weight on con rods. There is no reason to. This is an accidental occurrence.

"When you're an engine builder and you're not getting 100 per cent engine durability, you're letting your partners down," he added. "It is my job to make sure we have all the parts and pieces and the budget in place to make sure that incidents like this never happen."

TRD vice president David Wilson explained the details of how the problem had come about, when interviewed by the media midweek: "A connecting rod was manufactured under tolerance [by a third-party vendor] and shipped to us, which it should never have been, and we didn't do a thorough enough job in checking the paperwork. We don't do a 100 per cent inspection on every single part."

Wilson told USA Today that the part failed to meet the 525 grams minimum specification by the weight of three paperclips.

"There's absolutely zero opportunity for an advantage by lightening one connecting rod. If you're lightening rods, you're going to lighten all of them because you need the engine in balance," he added. "If we're going to attempt to deceive or cheat by building a lighter engine, you're not going to do it with one connecting rod and not with a rod 2.3 grams out of tolerance.

"We don't play those games, and Joe Gibbs doesn't play those games," he added.

Unfortunately NASCAR rules are black and white in the area of engine specifications: neither the amount that a component fails by, nor the perceived intention of the problem, is allowed to have any bearing on the penalties issued to the team as a result.

"If it did not meet the weight, it was not legal," Kenseth himself conceded. "If the speed limit is 35 mph on pit road and you're going 35.01, you're speeding. I don't have any argument with that at all."

As a result, even though JGR has said it will appeal the severity of the penalties imposed on it, they look unlikely to succeed in getting the sanctions lifted or lightened. That leaves the small question of whether TRD, as the responsible party, will at least help Ratcliff in paying the $200k fine.

"I'm not going to say 'No' because under the circumstances it's pretty hard to argue that wouldn't be the right thing to do," White agreed when asked. "Under the circumstances, with there being a potential appeal, we should let the appeal process go through before we start having discussions like that."

But assuming that the appeal doesn't succeed, there's nothing that TRD can do about the 50 points that the driver and the car have already lost in the Sprint Cup championship, or the six Cup races that Kenseth will be without his crew chief at a critical stage of the 2013 season.

"I think it's business as usual," Kenseth said when asked how the team would deal with the situation moving forwards. "Hope the appeals process works, and we get some people in there to look at everything that are reasonable and hopefully get the penalties at least reduced.

"I think, other than that, we put it behind us."


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