Three grams. That’s the equivalent of 0.106 of an ounce. Or the weight of three paper clips.
And that’s how much one of eight connecting rods in the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota engine of Matt Kenseth weighed below the 525-gram minimum when Kenseth won last Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup STP 400 at Kansas Speedway.
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Because of that infraction, NASCAR lowered the boom on Joe Gibbs Racing on Wednesday, fining crew chief Jason Ratcliffe $200,000 and suspending him for six races; docking Kenseth 50 points in the standings; and denying the No. 20 team from applying the Kansas win toward eligibility for a wild-card position in the Chase.
Joe Gibbs Racing said it would appeal the penalties, and Lee White, president of Toyota Racing Development, took the blame, saying fault rested with the factory and not anything Joe Gibbs Racing or Ratcliffe had done.
“We take full responsibility for this issue with the engine used by the No. 20 team this past Sunday in Kansas,” White said in a news release.
“(Joe Gibbs Racing) is not involved in the process of selecting parts or assembling the Cup series engines. It was a simple oversight and there was no intent to deceive, or to gain any type of competitive advantage.
“None of the other seven connecting rods were found to be under the minimum weight.”
Kenseth’s car passed postrace inspection at Kansas Speedway, but the engine from the winner’s car is always torn down at NASCAR’s Research and Development facility in North Carolina, and that’s where the infraction was discovered.
It was the second time in two weeks, a NASCAR powerhouse team was severely penalized. Two weeks ago, NASCAR confiscated parts of the rear housing of the Penske Racing cars of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano prior to the Texas race. Keselowski and Logano were docked 25 points each. Their crew chiefs were fined $100,000 and suspended for six races, along with five other top crew officials.
Penske Racing’s appeal of the penalties will be heard next week.
The penalties for JGR, if they are upheld, are even harsher.
“With this penalty, NASCAR says it will not accept any kind of wrongdoing with the engines,” said former NASCAR crew chief Jeff Hammond, now an analyst for Fox/Speed networks. “They have sent the ultimate message there will be no tolerance or leniency. This penalty is warranted to get everyone’s attention, but NASCAR hasn’t hit the right target as far as the responsible party is concerned.”
Hammond said it was unfair to penalize the team for an area in which the crew chief has little, if any responsibility, but there’s not a way to penalize the engine builder and not the team.
Former crew chief and Fox/Speed analyst Larry McReynolds attributed the mistake to human error, because if Toyota was trying to cheat, it would have made all eight rods lighter.
“But in NASCAR’s defense, they can’t completely determine intent or non-intent,” McReynolds said. “I don’t question the points penalty or the fine, but I take issue with suspending Jason Ratcliff, because while the crew chief ultimately is responsible for the car from the roof to the driveshaft, there is no way in this world Ratcliff knew that rod was too light. He wouldn’t have known if all eight rods were light. In my 18 years as a crew chief, I couldn’t tell you anything about the engine other than whether it was running well or whether it was in the car.
“If (Toyota Racing Development) rebuilt this engine and upped the weight of that one connecting rod to the proper weight and re-ran the Kansas race, Kenseth probably still would have won. But there is a line in the sand and (Toyota Racing Development) crossed that line, whether intentional or not.”
The win at Kansas was the second this season for Kenseth, who moved to Joe Gibbs Racing from Roush Fenway Racing after the 2012 season, and the fourth for Joe Gibbs Racing in the last six races. Kyle Busch won the other two races for Joe Gibbs Racing this season.
Kenseth fell from eighth to 14th in the points standings because the 50-point penalty means he actually lost two points despite winning.
Meanwhile, NASCAR docked Camping World Truck Series driver Johnny Sauter 25 points because of a modified fuel cell found in the inspection following Saturday’s race at Kansas Speedway.
Sauter’s crew chief, Joe Shear, was fined $10,000, suspended for the next four races and placed on probation until Dec. 31. The penalty knocked Sauter from a 12-point lead over Matt Crafton in the standings to a tie with Jeb Burton in second, 13 points out.
Sauter has won two of the four trucks races this season and finished fifth at Kansas.