NASCAR found itself in a no-win situation, and had nobody to blame but itself in what’s becoming known as the “Boys, have at it” era.
Maybe they got it right in parking Matt Kenseth for the next two Sprint Cup races, beginning with Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
Kenseth, a two-time winner at Texas who will likely see his 571 consecutive start streak end, inserted himself in a bigger-than-expected role in determining the championship. It’s not entirely going to play out on the track, as NASCAR officials would have preferred.
Kenseth, 43, is going to appeal the suspension, Joe Gibbs Racing announced in a statement, saying: “The appeal will challenge the severity of the penalty which is believed to be inconsistent with previous penalties for similar on-track incidents.”
Kenseth and JGR might have a case, too. Jeff Gordon spun Clint Bowyer at Phoenix in 2012, and received only a $100,000 fine and a 25-point deduction.
Kyle Busch intentionally wrecked Ron Hornaday Jr. in the truck race at TMS in 2011, and was parked for the Xfinity and Sprint Cup races that weekend. Busch also was slapped with a $50,000 fine.
Kenseth’s punishment will generate debate as to whether NASCAR got it right. The sanctioning body also punished Danica Patrick for intentionally crashing into David Gilliland. Patrick has been fined $50,000, docked 25 points and placed on probation through the end of the season.
But Kenseth’s actions have created the most noise, and clearly didn’t sit well with NASCAR brass.
“We don’t want that to happen again,” chairman Brian France said Tuesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio before the suspensions were announced. “We don’t want any of our events to be altered in a way they shouldn’t be.
“What we want to prevent happening is drivers or any participant in NASCAR to take matters into their own hands and begin to control the outcome of races beyond hard racing. When that happens, that’s a very serious thing for us. And we’ll be dealing with that.”
Judging by most drivers’ reactions, Kenseth had every right to do what he did in taking out race leader and championship favorite Joey Logano with 46 laps left Sunday at Martinsville Speedway.
Let’s not forget that Logano essentially ended Kenseth’s championship hopes two weeks ago at Kansas, turning him with five laps to go. Kenseth simply returned the favor in Turn 1 at Martinsville.
And Kenseth did it in the opening race of the Eliminator Round, leaving Logano and his team two more shots to win a spot in the championship round.
That, to most fans, is fair enough. Logano isn’t exactly a racing darling, and the crowd at Martinsville certainly approved of Kenseth getting some payback.
So did the drivers.
“I ain’t going to argue with what Matt did,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “Matt felt like he was justified with how Joey wrecked him at Kansas and then was arrogant about it afterward. That was really what got under Matt’s skin more than anything — how Joey was arrogant about it. When you damn wreck a guy, admit it, you know?”
In his post-race interview, Kenseth had another motive than simple retaliation. He alluded to next season’s Chase and ensuring a similar scenario didn’t happen to him again.
In last year’s Chase, Kenseth wasn’t pleased with how Logano’s teammate, Brad Keselowski, rear-ended him on pit road after the Charlotte race, the middle race of the Contender Round.
So all of those things might have added up to Kenseth’s motives, and the message came in clear.
“Don’t wreck Matt Kenseth. I’ll tell you that right now,” Earnhardt said. “Do not wreck that boy.”
This is the type of drama and incidents that have become commonplace in the knockout-style Chase format.
As stated, Charlotte produced plenty of action in the middle Contender Round last year, and then Texas followed with its own fireworks during the middle race in the Eliminator Round with Gordon and Keselowski engaged in a post-race brawl.
And this year saw Kansas — now the middle race in the Contender Round — get its fair share of drama with the first Logano-Kenseth incident.
Creating this sort of entertainment is good for the sport, and NASCAR is OK with it to an extent. But Tuesday showed they also aren’t afraid to drop the hammer.
“The Chase format heaps a tremendous amount of pressure on the teams and drivers and has caused a number of competitors in recent years to retaliate against those they perceive to have done them wrong,” TMS president Eddie Gossage said. “Matt Kenseth is just the latest.
“The way it was done was very egregious and warrants some action. That being said, I believe a two-race suspension is a bit much. Other drivers who have done the same thing in the Chase have not received anywhere near as significant of a penalty.
“I understand that NASCAR is in a difficult position and ultimately has to make a decision that they feel is best for the sport.”
AAA Texas 500
Texas Motor Speedway
1 p.m. Sunday, KXAS/5