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The Rules Prevail in NASCAR

April 26, 2013

Between Penske Racing’s “gray area” work on rear suspension that got it in trouble and Kansas race winner Matt Kenseth’s underweight connecting rod, the fines, points penalties and probationary periods are rampant in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing.

Penske Racing’s appeal of its penalties will be heard on May 1st as they attempt to overturn the fines, suspensions and probations for their “suspension-gate”.

As for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) and Toyota Racing Development (TRD), which builds engines for all Toyota Camry entries, the discovery that one connecting rod was less than three grams under the 525-gram minimum – or about the weight of two cotton balls – shows that NASCAR is serious about its rules and will have no problems imposing huge sanctions to those that don’t comply within the scope of those rules.

That’s a good idea but the fines, suspensions and probations are really getting out of hand in this case. This was a TRD problem, not a JGR issue, after all. There was a time when Joe Gibbs Racing had its own engine shop; all Toyota builds were centralized through TRD a few years.

The issue at hand is not the iron hand of justice but how it’s apportioned. In this instance, the team suffered more for the production flaw of the engine maker. And the advantage of three fewer grams on the No. 7 connecting rod wouldn’t give an advantage, according to the engine builders and designers with whom I’ve spoken over the last day.

In all of his endeavors, on the NFL field of play and in NASCAR, Coach Joe Gibbs has always had an impeccable reputation. So has crew chief Jason Ratcliff. To penalize them as NASCAR has done, meting out a $200,000 fine and six-race suspension to Ratcliff, along with probation to the end of the year is a bit outrageous; the crew chief has already appealed and will be atop driver Kenseth’s stand at Richmond on Saturday night.

NASCAR also docked Gibbs 50 car owner points and denied him points from the race win at Kansas; he also has his owner’s license for the No. 20 suspended through the completion of the next six races, making him ineligible to receive car owner points during that period of time. Any points he might have earned toward eligibility for a car owner Wild Card position have been forfeited.

Kenseth lost 50 driver points and his pole award at Kansas won’t be allowed for eligibility in the 2014 Sprint Unlimited race; he gets no bonus points toward aggregate driver points totals after the completion of the first 26 races leading into the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.

Finally TRD loses five Sprint Cup manufacturer championship points in this fracas. TRD president Lee White immediately responded: ”We take full responsibility for this issue with the engine; JGR is not involved in the process of selecting parts or assembling the Cup Series engines. It was a simple oversight on TRD’s part and there was no intent to deceive or to gain any type of competitive advantage.”

According to Kenseth, the “average weight of all the rods was well above the minimum, 2.5 grams above the minimum at least. JGR had no control over it,” he insisted. “There was probably a disadvantage there if nothing else for the stuff being unbalanced,” not a performance advantage in the use of a single underweight connecting rod. While he doesn’t argue the illegality of the part, “I just think the penalty is way over the top for that. It wasn’t anything trying to gain an advantage. It was a mistake and I think that should have been taken into account.”

White acknowledged the process of checking parts at TRD’s Costa Mesa, Calif. facility should have accorded a second or third view before build began on engines for Toyota’s Cup cars – but it didn’t. We can be sure that process has changed over the past day and everything will be checked by everyone at TRD from this point forward, again and again and again.

By Anne Proffit

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