Familiar with Ratcliff's replacement from days at Roush Fenway
DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Matt Kenseth was in Canada earlier this week when J.D. Gibbs texted him the results of his race team’s appeal. When the messages from Joe Gibbs Racing’s president kept getting longer and longer, the driver began to realize this was no ordinary decision.
And it wasn’t. The National Stock Car Racing Appeals Panel on Wednesday overturned some of the harshest sanctions stemming from a violation in Kenseth’s race-winning engine from Kansas on April 21. Crew chief Jason Ratcliff will now sit out just one race, rather than six. Owner Joe Gibbs’ license has been reinstated. And Kenseth was returned most of the 50 points he was docked by NASCAR, while his victory from Kansas City will once again count toward qualification for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Kenseth knew it all along -- well, kind of.
"I don’t know about vindicated. I still feel bad we were in that spot to start with, to even have a penalty, to even put NASCAR in that position to have to react and do something. That’s really our goal, to never be in that spot."
“For some reason, I had a pretty good feeling about Wednesday,” he said at Darlington Raceway. “I didn’t know that it would come back to be exactly what it was. I didn’t know if we’d get it (reduced) that much. But more confident than any other appeal I’ve ever heard about that we were going to get a reduction. I think we had a pretty good case. We had some stuff from history, some different things that happened, and I felt like it would probably be reduced. I think everybody was in shock when the penalties were handed out to begin with, so I felt pretty good that they’d be reduced, but I really didn’t know how much.”
By a lot, as it turned out. Kenseth’s 50-point penalty for a connecting rod in his engine that did not meet minimum weight was cut to 12, moving him up to fourth in the Sprint Cup standings. The six-week suspension of Gibbs’ owners’ license was overturned. Ratcliff’s fine of $200,000 was upheld, although he will now sit out only Saturday night’s event at Darlington, rather than be sidelined until Kentucky. A points penalty to manufacturer Toyota was increased from five to seven.
The engine in question was made by Toyota Racing Development, which has said Gibbs had no knowledge of the mistake, and that it did not provide a competitive advantage. To a large degree, the three-member panel concurred, providing a large degree of relief to a driver who blasted the severity of the sanctions in the days after they were first issued.
“I don’t know about vindicated,” Kenseth said. “I still feel bad we were in that spot to start with, to even have a penalty, to even put NASCAR in that position to have to react and do something. That’s really our goal, to never be in that spot. Certainly I think these penalties are way more in line with what I originally thought it would be compared to things that happened in the past and things like that. I thought this was closer to what I thought it would be to start with.”
Filling in for Ratcliff this weekend is Wally Brown, whom Kenseth knows well from their days together at Roush Fenway Racing. Brown was Carl Edwards’ crew chief in 2006, and owns 20 top-10 finishes in 39 starts atop the pit box. Although Ratcliff will be back in Huntersville, N.C., Kenseth knows his regular crew chief will still be involved.
“Jason and I have a really good connection, so him not being there, it will be different,” he said. “But it is a really short schedule, and they’ve worked really hard this week to make sure they had a plan in place. Wally’s worked with him real hard, and obviously Wally knows what he’s doing. I think it will be OK. I know Jason is at the shop, and he’s got the computer hooked up so he can look at our stuff after practice and go through all our changes and comments, and I’m sure I’ll talk to him tonight. I think it will be all right.”
Ratcliff will be back at the track next week for the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Kenseth’s transgression was the second consecutive penalty to be substantially amended in the appeals process, coming on the heels of suspensions to seven Penske Racing employees -- including Paul Wolfe and Todd Gordon, crew chiefs to Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, respectively -- that were cut from six points races to two by Chief Appellate Officer John Middlebrook.
“I haven't thought a lot about the message it sends,” said Jimmie Johnson, who had major penalties to his team reduced by Middlebrook last season. “But I guess, thinking about it, it means get in there and fight. It's worth the chance to fight and try to lessen your penalty.”
Friday at Darlington, Kenseth wasn’t searching for any larger meaning to the recent appeals rulings -- he just wanted to get in his No. 20 car and put the episode behind him. But in his mind, the decisions don’t shift the weight of responsibility away from the race teams, which remain accountable for what they bring to the track each week.
“Whatever we put on that race track has to be right. It doesn’t matter where the parts and pieces come from, it doesn’t matter who put them together. It has to be right,” Kenseth said. “And at the end of the day, somebody’s got to be responsible for that car being right. So I totally understand all that. … It’s their job to police the garage, to make sure everyone is on an even playing field, to make sure everybody has the same chance to compete and win. I think they do the best job they can.”
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