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Kenseth team keeps eye on Chase despite penalty

April 26, 2013, David Caraviello,

No. 20 crew chief Jason Ratcliff says questionable connecting rod didn't contribute to Kansas win

RICHMOND, Va. -- To Jason Ratcliff, there’s no question about who won last weekend’s event in the Sprint Cup Series.

“We won Kansas. You can bet your bottom dollar on that,” the crew chief of Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 team said Friday at Richmond International Raceway. “You make that change in that engine, and that race doesn’t change a bit.”

Days after that victory, the engine in Matt Kenseth’s car was found to have a connecting rod lighter than the minimum weight specified in the rule book, and the result was an avalanche of NASCAR penalties -- including 50 points docked from the driver, a six-week suspension and $200,000 fine levied against the crew chief, and the owner’s license frozen for six weeks. Although Gibbs is appealing the sanctions, the severity of the penalties clearly weighs heavy on a team with championship aspirations.

"We’ll continue to perform the way we’ve been performing. We’ll overcome it. We’ll get in the Chase."

-- No. 20 Crew Chief Jason Ratcliff

As part of the penalty, Kenseth’s victory last weekend at Kansas Speedway won’t count toward Chase for the Sprint Cup wild card qualification, and he won’t receive the three bonus points for the win should he make the playoff. The 50-point deduction dropped Kenseth to 14th in the standings; he has to stay in the top 20 to remain eligible for the Chase. But Ratcliff is confident that his program can rebound.

“I feel like we can win more races,” said the crew chief, whose suspension is on hold until the appeal is heard. “We’ll stay in the top 20 for sure. So when you look at from that standpoint, can you win more races and get yourself in? Absolutely. Do I think we can overcome the 50 points as a race team? Absolutely. You look at where we stood last week after the race was over -- knowing that we’ve had two DNFs early in the season, we were still in the top 10, with two wins, great performances. It’s a strong race team. We’ll continue to perform the way we’ve been performing. We’ll overcome it. We’ll get in the Chase.”

Kenseth on Thursday called the penalties “grossly unfair” and “borderline shameful” given that the connecting rod in question was manufactured by a vendor and used in an engine assembled by Toyota Racing Development. According to TRD, the rod was measured at 2.7 grams below the minimum weight of 525 grams specified in the Sprint Cup Rule Book. None of the other rods in Kenseth’s engine were in violation, and there have been no such issues in any other engine built by TRD this season.

But those factors didn’t stop NASCAR from coming hard on the Gibbs team, given that engines are on a short list of parts the sanctioning body holds a very firm line on.

“As everyone knows, there are a few things that are understood in the garage area that are big,” said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s vice president for competition. “When you talk about engines, you talk about tires, and you talk about fuel. That’s a common thread that’s been understood, and it’s stood the test of time for the last 65 years. Don’t mess with those areas. And the penalties are severe.”

Too much so, according to the Gibbs team, which said a single light rod did not provide a competitive advantage. According to TRD, the Gibbs organization had no hand in the violation. Even so, JGR bore the weight of the penalty, because in NASCAR’s eyes teams are ultimately responsible for what they bring to the race track.

“It’s very difficult to go to an outside vendor and penalize them,” Pemberton said. “… That’s why in today’s world, we all know and relate to the fact that it stops at the crew chief, and it stops at the owner, and it stops at the organization that is here to compete.”

For the Gibbs team, that didn’t make the sweeping penalties any easier to digest. Ratcliff said the eight connecting rods in Kenseth’s car measured on average heavier than the minimum weight, and according to TRD such rules are in place to prevent engine builders from manufacturing pieces out of lightweight materials rather than the mandated magnetic steel.

“When you look at the letter of the law and the spirit of the law … the spirit was not compromised,” Ratcliff said. “… I'm not an engine builder, so I wouldn't want to sit here and give you any absolute facts, but I don't think you have to be (one) to look at that and look at the weight difference and the average, and understand how rotating mass works, and why the rule is in place to start with. Again, it was wrong and there's consequences to that. I respect the rule book, I respect NASCAR's stance on it. But at the same time, there is absolutely no competitive advantage there. From that standpoint, when you look at rulings and you look at penalties, it's over the top.”

In Ratcliff’s view, the six-week suspension of Gibbs’ ownership license was particularly harsh, sinking the No. 20 in the owners’ standings and potentially costing the team millions of dollars in bonus money at the end of the year.

“He’s an awesome guy, he’d give you the shirt off his back. And to kick him like that -- it’s wrong. Especially with what he’s done with this sport and how loyal he’s been to this sport. Typically Joe is the kind of guy, you can throw it at him, and he’ll take it because he has big shoulders, and he’ll move on. This isn’t right,” Ratcliff said of his team owner.

“You look at the penalties and say, 'it’s $200,000.' No, it’s much bigger than that. You sit down and you add up what it costs to not have the opportunity the rest of the teams in the garage have, to win the owners’ championship -- the owners’ championship pays a lot of money, and not only that, it affects all of Joe Gibbs Racing. It affects your sponsors long-term. Again, it’s hard. Me, I take that and I raise my hand as the crew chief on the 20 car and take responsibility. I know, per the rule book, it’s my responsibility to make sure all the parts and pieces are correct. Joe -- it’s totally uncalled for.”

Whether it is uncalled for will be up to three members of the National Stock Car Racing Appeals Panel -- and, perhaps, the Chief Appellate Officer himself -- to decide that. In the meantime, the No. 20 team looks back at last weekend and sees a victory, no matter what the standings may reflect.

“In our book, it’s still a W,” Ratcliff said. “We worked really hard for it, and we celebrated it as if it was a victory. We will always look back on that and see it as a victory in our book.”



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