Joe Gibbs Racing has emerged largely victorious from Wednesday's appeal hearing against the harsh penalties imposed on the team over an engine component irregularity in its race-winning #20 car at Kansas last month.
In a post-race technical stripdown, NASCAR found that the Toyota unit in Matt Kenseth's car contained one connecting rod among a set of eight that was three grams under the required minimum legal weight. Kenseth was penalised 50 Sprint Cup championship points and the #20 also lost 50 points in the owners' championship together with a six-race suspension from scoring any further points.
Kenseth's crew chief Jason Ratcliff was handed a suspension for six NASCAR Sprint Cup races as well as from the Sprint All-Star exhibition event, and was also served a $200,000 fine.
But on Wednesday, a three-person panel selected from the 49 members of the National Stock Car Racing Appeals Panel heard JGR's appeal at NASCAR's Research & Development Center in Concord, North Carolina. Afterwards, Stafford Motor Speedway chief operating officer Mark Arute, Dover Motorsports CEO Denis McGlynn and former team owner Jack Housby issued a ruling that broadly agreed with JGR that NASCAR's penalties had been disproportionate to the original offence.
As a result, Kenseth's penalty deduction has been lowered from 50 to 12 points, moving him back up from 11th to fourth in the standings. The owners' points penalty has been similarly revised, and the suspension of Joe Gibbs' owner licence for the #20 has been overturned entirely meaning that the car will now continue to pick up owner points for the team as normal.
Ratcliff's suspension has been reduced from six Cup races to just one, which will be served at this weekend's Darlington race, and he will now only be on probation until after Pocono on June 9 rather than until the end of the season. However his $200,000 fine has been upheld, the only major sanction to stand unchanged.
JGR had never disputed the violation of the rules, but said that the penalties that NASCAR had handed down to the team were too severe given that there was no competitive advantage and the engine was a sealed plug-and-play item delivered to them from Toyota Racing Development's California assembly plant.
TRD has already accepted the blame for the rules violation and said it was down to a failure to adequately quality check components supplied to them by a third party vendor. “Totally our fault," admitted TRD President Lee White in April. "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."
Toyota will still lose points in the manufacturer championship, with the appeal actually increasing the original five point sanction to seven. White has also not ruled out pitching in to pay some or all of Ratcliff's $200,000 fine, which remains in place. "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 had agreed when previously asked, although he did not commit himself either way ahead of the appeal hearing.
As part of the original penalty, Kenseth's race win at Kansas wouldn't have counted towards a 'most wins wildcard' in the event he needed one to make the post-season Chase; he wouldn't have got the three point credit in the Chase for the win; and the pole wouldn't have counted toward making the 2014 Sprint Unlimited field, although that was made academic by his winning a consecutive pole in the next race. All those sanctions have been set aside by the appeals panel.
Before today's hearing, 70 per cent of the cases previously brought before NASCAR's appeals panel had been upheld.
NASCAR made it clear that they were not happy with losing this week's ruling: "You're not going to agree with everything, and today is one we disagree with," said spokesman Kerry Tharp. "We feel like when we write a penalty and write a rules violation, there needs to be something behind it.
"While we are disappointed in today's outcome, we stand firmly behind our inspection process," he added. "We take this ruling and we move on to Darlington."
Tharp insisted that penalising a team for elements outside its immediate control was harsh, but unavoidable.
"In violations such as these, we have no other recourse in the reinforcement process than to penalise the team owner and team members," he explained. "That's how our system works. The responsibility for such infractions falls on their shoulders. Our intensity and approach to inspecting engines will not change.
Joe Gibbs appeared subdued when speaking to the media afterwards: “This has been a tough, tough week for everyone and certainly no one wanted this to happen,” the team owner said. "We're committed to make sure that it never happens in the future.
“I want to emphasize, after going through this process, we have great respect for our sport and in particular NASCAR. All of us at Joe Gibbs Racing are committed to being good partners and we want to race with NASCAR forever," he continued. "We're going to work extremely hard with TRD to make sure that this never happens again. Right now, we just want to get back to racing."
Matt Kenseth's Twitter posting similarly conveyed a sense of relief that the matter was over: "Glad to have today behind us so we can get our focus back on racing. I respect NASCAR and the appeals process, I feel like they got it right," he wrote.
The official statement from the appeals panel detailing the outcome of the hearing offered no commentary on how it had arrived at the decision to reduce or rescind most of JGR penalties, or why the $200,000 fine remained.
The sanctioning body does not have any right of appeal, and JRG has already said that it is happy with the outcome of today's hearing and will not be taking the matter any further and will accept the reduced penalties handed down by today's panel.
The day before the JGR hearing, NASCAR's six-race suspensions of key Penske Racing staff for using unapproved rear suspension parts at the previous race in Texas had also been reduced to two races upon final appeal to the series' chief appellate officer John Middlebrook, making it a double blow for NASCAR's regulatory approach in 2013. (See separate story
Penske announced on Wednesday that their test team manager Kevin Buskirk will stand in for the suspended Paul Wolfe as crew chief of Brad Keselowski's #2 car, with Jonathan Hassler taking over as race engineer and Nick Hensley as car chief.
Over in the #22 garage, Steve Reis will stand in for regular crew chief Todd Gordon with Ben Atkins and Jeffery Thousand as race engineer and car chief respectively.
Penske's vice president of operations Mike Nelson will take over the role as team manager with Greg Erwin - Sam Hornish Jr.'s crew chief in the Nationwide Series - acting as race strategist.