NASCAR has decided on an unprecedented two-race suspension for Joe Gibbs Racing's Matt Kenseth following an incident near the end of Sunday's race at Martinsville Speedway which saw him run Chase contender Joey Logano into the wall.
Kenseth appeared to be carrying out retribution against the Penske driver for an incident between the two that took place in October's race at Kansas when they had been battling for the lead of the race. On that occasion, Logano had tapped Kenseth into a spin that ultimately contributed to him dropping out of this year's Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, while Logano himself went on to claim victory.
Kenseth was once again battling for the lead at Martinsville when he ended up making contact with Logano's team mate Brad Keselowski on lap 436 as the Penske pair tried to work in tandem at the front of the field. The incident resulted in Keselowski heading to pit road for repairs, but Kenseth stayed out for the restart and waited until the leaders came around so that he could then drive into Logano in turn 1 on lap 455.
"It was just a complete coward move, especially for a championship race car driver and race team," Logano had fumed after the race on Sunday. "Just a complete coward. I don't have anything else to say. It's a chicken-you-know-what move to completely take out the leader when your race is over."
The wreck left Logano classified in 37th place, which could jeopardise his chances of making it to the final at Homestead-Miami later this month. The #22 had won the previous three races back-to-back and had also been out in front for a total of 207 laps of the 500-lap race at Martinsville, putting himself in prime position to win the race and clinch an automatic place in the final that instead went to Jeff Gordon.
NASCAR took a dim view of the 2003 Cup champion taking out a current Chase contender, and after prolonged discussions on Tuesday decided on an unprecedented two-race suspension plus six-month probation. It's thought to be the first time in the modern era that a driver has been parked for multiple Sprint Cup races for an on-track incident, and will bring to an end the 43-year-old's streak of 571 consecutive starts which is second only to Jeff Gordon among currently active drivers.
Kenseth's JGR team mate Kyle Busch was parked for two races in 2011 after he intentionally wrecked title contender Ron Hornaday during a Friday night NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Texas Motor Speedway. Busch was then suspended for the rest of the weekend, which included the next day's Xfinity (then Nationwide) Series race and also the Sprint Cup event on the Sunday.
"Based upon our extensive review, we have concluded that the #20 car driver, who is no longer in the Chase, intentionally wrecked the #22 car driver, a Chase-eligible competitor who was leading the race at the time,” said Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer.
"The #20 car was nine laps down, and eliminated the #22 car's opportunity to continue to compete in the race," O'Donnell noted. "Additionally, we factored aspects of safety into our decision, and also the fact that the new Chase elimination format puts a premium on each and every race. These actions have no place in NASCAR."
"We don't want that to happen again," NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France had said earlier on Tuesday. "We don't want any of our events to be altered in a way they shouldn't be ... What we want to prevent happening is drivers or any participant in NASCAR to take matters into their own hands and begin to control the outcome of races beyond hard racing. When that happens, that's a very serious thing for us. And we'll be dealing with that."
"It's a pretty clear message," Logano's team mate Keselowski told FOX Sports after the penalty was announced on Tuesday evening. "You can't intentionally wreck the leader when you're six or seven or however many laps down, especially not in the Chase. I think that was a pretty clear message beforehand. I would have been surprised more so if there wasn't a penalty than if there was.
"I definitely feel like the Chase is being set up as having a different set of rules as far as what's acceptable and what's not," he continued. "What NASCAR sent as a message is you can't intentionally wreck someone in the Chase and ruin their day when you're not in the Chase. They're going to come down hard, and that's the message they sent today.
"There's always a way as a driver to settle the score, and that way can be a lot of different things. You can just race that guy really hard. You cannot cut him any slack on pit road. There's a lot of other ways to kind of exact revenge without intentionally wrecking someone and the car, and I feel like, personally, that's the message NASCAR is trying to get across here - that this is beyond what they consider payback."
After the race, Kenseth himself denied that it has been intentional payback although admitted that the crash had clearly been his fault.
"Definitely my fault," Kenseth agreed. "I got into him. The right front was dragging down there and probably should've went to the garage area and went into the corner there and man couldn't get it to turn and collected him. I know it's got to be disappointing for him you know. It's a tough sport, some days you're the bat and some days you're the ball. I was the ball a few weeks ago and I was the ball again today so that part is never fun."
Joe Gibbs Racing immediately said that they would appeal the suspension to the three-member National Stock Car Racing Commission panel. "The appeal will challenge the severity of the penalty which is believed to be inconsistent with previous penalties for similar on-track incidents," a statement from the team said, adding that there would be no further comments from JGR personnel during the appeal process.
NASCAR said it would not delay the imposition of the suspension to allow the appeal to take place, but that it would expedite the appeals process. It's understood that if Kenseth is not allowed to compete in this week's race at Texas Motor Speedway or next week's penultimate event at Phoenix International Raceway then JGR's development driver Eric Jones will be called up to replace Kenseth in the #20 car. The Camping World Truck Series regular made his Sprint Cup début earlier this year when he briefly sat in for an injured Kyle Busch.
FOX Sports analyst Jeff Hammond suggested that JGR could have definite grounds to get the penalty overturned or reduced.
"It's going to be really easy. They can go back and cite the fact that Jeff Gordon wrecked Clint Bowyer and probably hurt his chances to win the championship just a couple of years ago," Hammond noted of a similar incident at Phoenix International Raceway in 2012 which had resulted in a $100,000 fine, 25-point penalty and probation for Gordon - but crucially no suspension.
"There are several incidents. Go all the way back to the Carl Edwards/Brad Keselowski incident at Atlanta," continued Hammond. "They have a lot to argue about that NASCAR, in these situations, either did nothing or assessed points and fines. Joe Gibbs Racing will argue it's very inconsistent. Incidents like the Edwards/Keselowski incident are the kind of stuff that, back then, NASCAR had an opportunity to make a statement."
NASCAR also penalised Stewart-Haas Racing's Danica Patrick for a separate act of on-track retaliation that took place on Sunday in which she took out David Gilliland on lap 419 as payback for an earlier clash between the pair on lap 158. Since the incident did not involve the championship battle and was not deemed as dangerous, Patrick avoided suspension and instead was fined $50,000 and docked 25 points, and placed on NASCAR probation through to December 31.