DARLINGTON, S.C. — Matt Kenseth was in Canada when J.D. Gibbs sent him the results of their appeal to NASCAR to reduce sweeping penalties against Joe Gibbs Racing.
“J.D. kept texting me and the texts just kept getting longer and longer,” Kenseth said Friday. “I’m like, ‘Wait a minute. They did what? They gave us that back?”’
They sure did.
Aside from crew chief Jason Ratcliff’s absence Friday at Darlington Raceway, it was almost like nothing ever happened after a three-member appeal panel dramatically reduced the penalties for having an illegal part in Kenseth’s race-winning engine at Kansas.
Among the key changes: Ratcliff’s suspension was reduced from six races to one, Kenseth lost only 12 points instead of 50, a six-race suspension against team owner Joe Gibbs was wiped out and Kenseth had his three bonus points from the Kansas victory restored.
The decision came a day after NASCAR chief appellate officer John Middlebrook reduced the suspensions of seven key Penske Racing employees from six points races to two, plus next week’s All-Star race. Middlebrook upheld the rest of the sanctions against Penske, but the team initally still viewed his decision as a victory.
Defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski was more subdued Friday.
“I guess at this point I’ve kind of become devoid of any emotions about it,” Keselowski said. “I was pretty emotional when it all started, but not anymore. I’m more focused on the task at hand and motivated to do the best we can with the situation we have. I think adversity is an opportunity and this is an opportunity to showcase how strong we can be as a team and that’s how I’m looking at it.”
The suspensions ran deep into the Penske organization, and Keselowski said it was his understanding crew chief Paul Wolfe could communicate with the team in real-time so long as he wasn’t on track property. That’s been a help.
“It’s not like Paul is shot and dead,” Keselowski said. “There’s all kinds of technology in this garage, maybe not always on the race cars, but there’s no shortage of that. Still, there’s nothing quite like having somebody at the track.”
NASCAR President Mike Helton on Friday was not discouraged with the two-prong appeals process, despite the mixed decisions that seemingly undermined NASCAR’s authority.
“We are content with our appeal process. It’s designed to be independent, it’s designed to have layers to it, and the personalities involved are those we chose to be involved in it,” Helton said outside the NASCAR hauler. “I think the members that are involved in the sport understand our responsibility and how serious we take it, and I don’t feel like this in any way undermines what we do and in most cases the process doesn’t come back with anything that really changes our mind much. We do our job and the due process exists.”
Helton admitted NASCAR doesn’t know the reasoning behind either decision issued this week.
Middlebrook issued a two-sentence statement through NASCAR that shed no light on how he came to the conclusion he did in the Penske case. The three members who heard the Gibbs appeal said nothing after their decision.
Understanding why a decision was made helps NASCAR change the language of its rules to avoid penalties being overturned in the future.
“I don’t know that we know exactly what the appeal members were thinking,” Helton said. “But from the experience, if there’s a way for us to be more precise and changing wording or adding wording to a rule, so that the clarity of what we feel like our responsibility is translated to the member and is obvious to anybody from the outside looking at it.”
Five-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, who has been through his share of appeals with Hendrick Motorsports, didn’t know what to make of the rulings for JGR and Penske. Drivers don’t typically attend the appeals, and are only told later how they went.
“You don’t expect these reductions,” he said. “I get phone calls about what the vibe was like inside the meeting, what the meeting was like, and they are never optimistic. It’s a tough thing to live through. I know that NASCAR can never hand out a penalty that’s less than, we know it’s always going to be more than a previous penalty.”
Kenseth came to Darlington for Saturday night’s race fourth in the Sprint Cup standings instead of 11th, and will use Wally Brown, who once worked as Carl Edwards’ crew chief at Roush Fenway Racing, as Ratcliff’s replacement this weekend.
“The penalties were pretty crushing before they got reduced,” Kenseth said. “I applaud NASCAR for having the appeals process and putting that in place to have some people look at it after all the dust settles a little bit and be objective ... I feel like they did a nice job of looking at all the facts and circumstances that went with it and made a decent decision.”
It was a far cry from his reaction two weeks ago when NASCAR initially sanctioned the team for finding one of the eight connecting rods in his engine did not meet the minimum weight requirement. JGR leases its engines from Toyota Racing Development, which immediately accepted responsibility, and both JGR and TRD said no performance advantage was gained form the part.
Kenseth called the penalties “borderline shameful” when they were handed down.
And even though the appeals board has a record that heavily favors NASCAR, Kenseth felt confident the penalties would be reduced.
“For some reason, I had a pretty good feeling ... I didn’t know it would come back to be exactly what it was, I didn’t know if we would have gotten a reduction that much, but I felt more confident than any other appeal I’ve ever heard about,” Kenseth said. “We had a pretty good case and there were different things that happened where I felt like it would get reduced. I think everybody was shocked when the penalties got handed out to start with, so I felt pretty good it was going to get reduced.”MORE IN Sports Wire
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