RICHMOND, Va. — Jason Ratcliff, crew chief of Matt Kenseth’s No. 20 Toyota, said the underweight connecting rod that earned a NASCAR penalty of historic severity provided no performance advantage.
Toyota Racing Development’s Dave Wilson attributed the mistake to a clerical error.
In NASCAR’s view, however, the questions of performance and intent are secondary to the strict enforcement of the written rules.
“Over the last two or three weeks, as everybody knows, we’ve had some significant penalties, and they’re in all areas of the rule book,” said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR vice president of competition, during a question-and-answer session with reporters Friday in the Richmond International Raceway media center.
“We’re not here to judge these penalties — whether they are performance-enhancing, but we’re really here just to regulate the rule book.”
After Kenseth won last Sunday’s STP 400 Sprint Cup race at Kansas Speedway, NASCAR discovered a connecting rod that weighed 2.7 grams less than the required minimum of 525 grams during a spot-check of the engine of the winning Joe Gibbs Racing car.
“As part of that spot check, routinely they’ll pick one hole (cylinder) — it’s not the same hole every time — and have you pull the connecting rod and piston out,” said Wilson, senior vice president of Toyota Racing Development. “In this particular instance, the connecting rod that they pulled and weighed, it weighed in at 2.7 grams under the minimum legal weight.
“The very next thing that they did was to check the other seven connecting rods, and all seven of those were above the minimum legal weight.”
Wilson affirmed that the infraction was the result of a mistake that occurred at TRD in Costa Mesa, Calif., where the engines are built and shipped to the Sprint Cup teams of Joe Gibbs Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing.
“It was literally a clerical error,” Wilson told the NASCAR Wire Service on Friday at Richmond. “Our manufacturer, one, shouldn’t have sent us that connecting rod because it was not within the specifications that we dictate. Two, they sent it with the weight recorded, and we missed it. We took it for granted…
“Again, this is a tier one ISO (International Organization for Standardization)-certified supplier, but it’s still on us. It’s still our responsibility to have a measure of quality assurance for every single part that comes in our front door.”
There is no argument from any quarter that the part failed to meet the required specifications. Joe Gibbs Racing is appealing the extent of the penalties, which include a $200,000 fine and suspension from six Cup points races for Ratcliff.
Kenseth lost 50 championship points along with other benefits of winning the race. Joe Gibbs was docked 50 owner points, and his owner’s license was suspended for six points races. The No. 20 car will not accrue owner points during Gibbs’ suspension, effectively taking the car out of the running for the owners’ championship.
It’s the severity of the penalty to Gibbs that Ratcliff had the most difficulty comprehending.
“This isn’t right,” Ratcliff said. “This isn’t right for a team owner, and you look at the penalty and say, ‘Well, it’s $200,000.’ No, it’s much bigger than that. You sit down and you add up what it costs not to have the opportunity that the rest of the teams in the garage have to win the owners’ championship — owners’ championship pays a lot of money.
“Not only that, it affects all of Joe Gibbs Racing. It affects our sponsors long-term. Again, it’s harsh, and for me, I take that. I raised my hand as the crew chief of the 20 car and take responsibility. I know the rule book, and it’s my responsibility to make sure all the parts and pieces are correct.
“For Joe, it’s totally uncalled-for.”
Ratcliff was insistent that the illegal part was a mistake that provided no competitive advantage.
“I’m not going to call it a simple mistake, because it’s a big mistake,” Ratcliff said. “I respect NASCAR’s view on it as far as the part was illegal, so by the letter of the law, the part’s illegal, and there’s consequences for that.
“I do not feel like the spirit of the law was compromised. That’s where we felt like the severity of the penalty is extremely harsh.”
Pemberton explained that the penalties were as severe as they were in part because the engine is one area where teams historically have understood that strict compliance with the rules is demanded.
“As everyone knows, there are a few things that are understood in the garage area that are big — when you talk about engines, you talk about tires, and you talk about fuel,” Pemberton said. “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.
“When you look in the case of an engine, the only time we really get to look internally at an engine is post-race. Some of our most severe penalties over time have surrounded engine infractions.”
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