The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series continues to be overshadowed by penalties—loss of points, suspensions and fines—as we head to Richmond International Raceway for Saturday night’s Toyota Owner’s 400 (7:30 PM ET, Fox). This time its Matt Kenseth caught in the crosshairs, facing a 50-point penalty. Kenseth is mad and I agree with him.
Kenseth won last week in Kansas City, and the postrace inspection showed that an engine part weighed less than it was supposed to—by about the weight of two cotton balls. A Toyota spokesman accepted complete responsibility. While denying the change could impact the outcome of the race, the spokesman also conceded that the rule was crystal-clear. In addition to the point penalty, Kenseth’s crew chief, Jason Ratcliff, was hit with a six-race suspension and fined $200,000.
My problem is not with the sanctions per se—my problem remains what appears to be a clear double standard in enforcement. How is it that last season, Jimmie Johnson got let off the hook, while Kenseth and Brad Keselowski are getting the book thrown at them this year? When the sport’s marquee driver is the one who’s seeing their penalties lifted—as was the case with Johnson last year, am I really out of line in thinking there’s some favoritism going on?
I spoke with TheSportsNotebook’s NASCAR junkie, my brother Bill, this morning. He tentatively agreed with me, but also cautioned to let the appeals process run its course. It was on appeal that Johnson’s penalty was lifted, and perhaps the same will happen to Kenseth and Keselowski. If so, I’ll eat the words written above, but right now it looks like there are two different sets of rules at play here.
Kenseth has the consistency to overcome the penalties. He’s still in good wild-card position, as noted further below, thanks to winning two races. He’s been on the circuit full-time since 2000 and has never finished lower than his current standing of 14th, has four Top 5 finishes and won the championship in 2003. Last year he won Daytona and led the point standings much of the summer, but it was ultimately undone by an inability to add additional wins, at least until October when it was too late.
This year he’s not as consistent and has the penalty problem to deal with, but the two victories loom large early on. If he regains his consistent form, he can be in strong position come September for a championship push.
Saturday night’s race offers a rare spectacle in that Johnson is not the betting favorite to win. Normally you can chalk JJ in as a 6-1 favorite like clockwork. But Kyle Busch has earned respect at Richmond. He’s won four of the last eight races here—that’s one a year each of the last four seasons. A showing like that helps you understand why he’s the favorite and the odds are an even tighter 4-1.
Richmond is not an easy track to navigate, with its shorter distance and high banks. It makes multi-car pileups a greater possibility. In that light, perhaps it’s best that Denny Hamlin’s doctors did not clear him to race. Hamlin, who’s working his way back from a fracture in his back, had hoped to make Saturday night—here in his hometown—his return, but the doctors advised waiting until next week.
A WILD, WILD-CARD PICTURE
The assortments of penalties stand to reshape the wild-card race, the two playoff spots given to drivers outside the Top 10. Kenseth’s point loss drops him from 8th to 14th. The first criteria used for the wild-card spots is outright wins and the fact Kenseth has two while no one else outside the Top 10 has won, will bear him in good stead. Of course his being dropped into the wild-card picture is bad news for drivers like Kevin Harvick and Aric Almirola, who are 11th and 12th in the point standings, but need wins.
Otherwise, we’re waiting to see who else among the at-large drivers can step up and win a race. The most obvious answer is Tony Stewart, but Bill was unsparing in his criticism of the champion driver’s team. “Stewart-Hass Racing has been behind the eight-ball all year,” he said bluntly. “They’re not set up on these mile and a halfs and missing the setups.” As proof that it’s a teamwide problem he pointed to the subpar performance of team member Ryan Newman, another good driver who’s right now in 17th place overall.
Perhaps the biggest question coming into Saturday night though, is who’s the next driver to have the hammer fall on them. We can safely assume it won’t be Johnson.