Matt Kenseth has been suspended for two race weekends after crashing Joey Logano out of the Goody’s 500 from Martinsville this past weekend.
In an official statement, it was declared that:
‘Matt Kenseth, the driver of the No. 20 car, has been penalized for an infraction that occurred during the Nov. 1 race at Martinsville Speedway. This is a Behavioral Penalty (Sections 12.1, 12.8). Kenseth has been suspended from NASCAR through the completion of the next two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship events and placed on NASCAR probation for a six-month period following issuance of the penalty notice.
“Based upon our extensive review, we have concluded that the No. 20 car driver, who is no longer in the Chase, intentionally wrecked the No. 22 car driver, a Chase-eligible competitor who was leading the race at the time,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer. “The No. 20 car was nine laps down, and eliminated the No. 22 car’s opportunity to continue to compete in the race.
“Additionally, we factored aspects of safety into our decision, and also the fact that the new Chase elimination format puts a premium on each and every race. These actions have no place in NASCAR.”
Alongside this whopping penalty, Danica Patrick was also penalised for her attempts at a similar payback wreck on David Gilliland in the same race. She was given the much lesser penalty of a $50,000 fine, the loss of 25 points and placed on NASCAR probation through Dec. 31.
Make no mistake, this is a huge change of direction from NASCAR. This is the sport that until now has favoured a very hands-off approach, advocating ‘boys, have at it’ and a position of letting drivers sort out their own disagreements with rivals on and off-track. This decision in context was entirely justified – there’s no way one of the biggest motor racing series on the planet could justify having top drivers ram competitors into walls like a destruction derby main event. To say it reflected poorly on the sport and its talent is an understatement. So strong and decisive action was needed, and that’s what we got from NASCAR. So kudos to them for it.
However, a huge section of the sport, including fellow drivers and journalists, were incredibly unhappy with NASCAR’s call. Why? On the face of it, it’s a simple decision, right?
You’d think so. But this is NASCAR.
Point one – in terms of previous incidents, this leaves NASCAR wide open to accusations of inconsistency. Leave aside the issue that two drivers got wildly differing penalties for essentially both doing the same thing in the same race, in recent years incidents like Jeff Gordon‘s revenge attack on Clint Bowyer in 2012 at Phoenix, or Carl Edwards‘ brutal retribution on Brad Keselowski at Atlanta 2010 have suffered far lesser punishments. Indeed, the one driver to be suspended in recent years was Kyle Busch, for ramming Ron Hornaday into the wall at Texas in a Truck race in 2011. What about the multiple post-race brawls in last year’s Chase? Slaps on the wrist in comparison. So today’s decision smacks of laughable hypocrisy to many, especially off the back of dismissing any accusations of foul play against Kevin Harvick and that late wreck at Talladega a week ago.
Which leads me to point two – when NASCAR has spent multiple years pouring fuel on a fire waiting for it to erupt in a spectacular inferno, it seems disingenuous to many that now they are acting surprised that it is threatening to burn out of control. The Chase for the Sprint Cup, especially in it’s current knockout-based form, was designed to crank up the pressure on drivers to breaking point; and combined with the ‘boys have at it’ attitude, is it any surprise that drivers were describing a ‘Wild West’ environment at Martinsville on Sunday? What really spoke volumes was the reactions of drivers and teams when Kenseth put Logano in the Turn 3 wall, and the fact many weren’t surprised one bit at Kenseth’s actions – just how far it had been allowed to go. It related back to the unwritten ‘driver code’ that former driver Ricky Craven explained in great detail on ESPN:
“It’s time to understand that this system (The Chase) isn’t working. You can’t change the code that drivers live by. Matt Kenseth exorcised the code, which is ‘if you take something from me, I’m gonna take it back.’ NASCAR put him in a bad position – they allowed a driver (Logano) who capitalised on this system, where if you win the first race of each round, you’re given a get-out-of-jail-free card. The problem was, Matt Kenseth (at Kansas) had a driver behind him who had a get-out-of-jail-free card, because winning enabled him to use the front bumper, move Matt out of the way and spin him, then the Chairman comes on and says ‘hey, that’s quintessential racing’. It’s a critical mistake, and it wasn’t corrected today. Matt Kenseth took it on the chin. Brian France owes us an explanation, and he needs to correct what I think has misguided several drivers after Kansas.”
When Kenseth declared at Talladega that NASCAR had lost control of the garage, we on the outside didn’t know how far he was about to go to prove himself right. But it’s telling that those on the inside, especially former drivers, knew exactly what he meant.
“It’s a no-holds-barred wild, wild West,” noted Denny Hamlin after Martinsville. “Sure, when people crown the statement that a driver’s doing what he’s got to do and they became OK with that statement, you’re just opening up Pandora’s box. Everyone is just doing what they have to do I guess. It’s a bad statement. It’s an ugly statement.”
Today’s decision by NASCAR was the start of the process of trying to close Pandora’s box again. Whether they were merely closing the gate long after the horse had bolted remains to be seen.