Matt Kenseth, game face: revenge with Friday's Richmond 400 pole...but this fight with NASCAR involves a lot more (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Surprise, surprise, surprise.
On one of the most difficult weeks of their careers Joe Gibbs' men, led by beleagured Matt Kenseth, swept the front row Friday evening for Saturday night's Richmond 400 (7:30 p.m. ET).
And third teammate Kyle Busch, the heavy race favorite, will start eighth. The race, ironically, is sponsored by Toyota.
Well, after Kenseth and his team got hit with one of the most severe penalties in NASCAR history just 48 hours earlier, there certainly was incentive.
The runs follow a long day of mea culpas by Gibbs himself and his men. Kenseth Thursday called the NASCAR penalties "almost shameful," in a ripping defense.
The Gibbs guys versus NASCAR?
Nevertheless, NASCAR rarely loses in cases like this.
And Gibbs' Jason Ratcliff, and Roger Penkse's Paul Wolfe and Todd Gordon, three of the top crew chiefs on the stock car racing tour, may all soon have a lot more Sundays to spend on Charlotte's Lake Speed.
Unless they can persuade NASCAR's appeals panel to lighten those huge penalties just assessed, including six-race suspensions.
And those suspensions would seriously hurt their drivers, Kenseth, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano.
What's really going on behind the scenes in their respective cases isn't really known.
NASCAR officials say Keselowski and Logano at Texas had rear ends that didn't meet 'the spirit' of the rules.
NASCAR officials say Kenseth at Kansas had an engine with a piston-connecting-rod that was too light.
Some in the garage are suspicious that the entire story isn't coming out. And those suspicions grew as the day went on.
What is clear is that at Las Vegas, Texas, California and Kansas Joe Gibbs' guys were the class of the field, Kenseth winning Vegas and Kansas (both times over Kasey Kahne), Kyle Busch winning Texas and California. Busch led 125 of the 200 laps at California; Busch and Toyota's Martin Truex Jr. led 313 of 334 at Texas; Kenseth led 163 of the 267 at Kansas, and Truex led 46.
Joe Gibbs' guys have won four of the first eight races.
Not that anyone in this sport is ever suspicious about things.....
Joe Gibbs is taking NASCAR's charges personally (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Kenseth was sharp in his criticism of his penalties, which Keselowski calls 'the death penalty,' because it all but dooms Kenseth's title hopes.
Ratcliff, in his second season on the tour as crew chief, for Kenseth, has been hot this spring. Now he's facing a major suspension.
The engine in question at Kansas was not built by the Gibbs team. Toyota's California-based engine-building operation builds all the Sprint Cup engines for Gibbs' three teams and Michael Waltrip's three teams.
Just why Gibbs essentially shutdown his once formidable Charlotte-based engine shop two years ago and is now leasing engines from Toyota's TRD isn't all that clear. Economics of scale is likely one reason.
Building NASCAR-caliber race engines is a very expensive and highly technical operation. Even Roger Penske has shut down his engine operation and leases engines from Jack Roush; Chip Ganassi leases his engines from Rick Hendrick.
Toyota provides the Gibbs and Waltrip engines as plug-and-play, no questions asked, no peeking allowed.
Toyota says the parts in question were from a European vendor; there are four primary suppliers of NASCAR-quality connecting rods.
NASCAR requires connecting rods to be 'magnetic steel,' though there are apparently no specifications on how that steel can be alloyed. As in most high-performance engine parts, lightness and strength are both prized.
Jason Ratcliff, facing lengthy suspension (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Ratcliff concedes that according to "the letter of the law....the part was illegal." But he insists "I do not feel the spirit of the law was compromised.
"That's where we felt the severity of the penalty is extremely harsh."
Still he calls it "a big mistake."
Does this issue taint the Kansas victory? "We won Kansas, you can bet your bottom dollar on that," Ratcliff says.
However he agrees "it was wrong, and there are consequences to that.
"I respect the rule book; I respect NASCAR's stance on it.
"But at the same time there is absolutely no competitive advantage there.
"From that standpoint, when you look at rulings and you look at penalties, it's over the top."
And this controversy certainly detracts from the brilliant start Kenseth and Ratcliff have had this season, their first together.
Ratcliff says he is hurt at the penalty because of its effect Gibbs himself.
"He's just a stand-up guy, and you could not ask for a better guy to work for, or even a friend," Ratcliff says. "He's an awesome guy.
"He would give you the shirt off his back. And to kick him like that, it's wrong.
"Especially what he's done for this sport, and how loyal he's been to this sport.
"This isn't right.
"It affects all of Joe Gibbs Racing; it affects our sponsors long term."
Ratcliff, like Keselowski, says NASCAR executives should review the way it handles some things.
"I think it's time for some change on how NASCAR approaches it, because times have changed so much," he said.
A big question: if the penalties stand, does Ratcliff still think he and Kenseth have a legitimate shot at making the playoffs and racing for the championship?
"I feel we can win more races," Ratcliff says. "We'll stay in the top-20 for sure.
"When you look at it from that standpoint, can you win more races and get yourself in? Absolutely.
"Do I think we can overcome the 50 points as a team? Absolutely.
"You look at where we stood last week after the race was over, with two DNFs ,and we're still in the top-10 with two wins, great performances.
"It's a strong race team.
"We'll continue to perform the way we've been performing and we'll overcome it. We'll be in the chase."
Crew chief Jason Ratcliff (R) and Matt Kenseth: NASCAR officials appear to have them fired up (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)