Matt Kenseth and family, Kansas Speedway victory lane (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Okay, Matt, time to 'fess up.
What the heck is going on here?
NASCAR has just busted hard on you, a $200,000 fine, a six-week suspension for crew chief Jason Ratcliffe, no team owner points for six races, and a bunch more.
"I think the penalties are grossly unfair," the mild-mannered Kenseth was saying Thursday afternoon here at Richmond International Raceway, as he prepared for some unexpected sub time for teammate Denny Hamlin in Late Models at this 3/4-mile.
"I think it's borderline shameful.
"There's no argument the part (an engine connecting rod) was wrong. They weighed it and it was wrong.
"However there is an argument that there certainly was no performance advantage.
"If you can find any unbiased, reputable, knowledgeable engine builder, and if they saw the facts -- what all the rods weighed....
"The average weight of all the rods was well above the minimum. There was one in there that was way heavy.
"There was no performance advantage, there was no intent, it was a mistake."
One curious aspect of this is that Toyota itself builds the engines, not the teams. This particularly engine was built in Toyota's Los Angeles shop. And the part in question came from a European supplier.
How many race teams still build their own engines? Not many.
Kenseth points out that his team "had no control over it."
And he says the penalties -- which would likely take Kenseth out of the championship playoffs, even though it's only April -- are unfair.
It might be interesting for team sponsor Home Depot to weigh in on this perhaps.
And remember teammate Hamlin is still sidelined himself and all but out of the title chase too....with all that might mean for his sponsor FedEx.
Denny Hamlin, Kenseth's teammate, all but out of the championship playoffs because of a back injury, and NASCAR's no sub rules (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Kenseth gets a bit angry at all this: "To crush Joe Gibbs like that... to say they can't win an owner's championship with the team this year... I can't wrap my arms around that. It just blows me away.
"And the same with Jason Ratcliff. I don't feel bad for myself at all, but for Jason and Joe, I just couldn't feel any worse.
"There are no more reputable, honest, hard-working guys with good reputations than those two. I feel really bad for them."
Guilt, Kenseth accepts.
"I don't argue there was a scale, and it says it has to weigh 225 grams, and if it weighs 224.99, it's illegal," Kenseth concedes.
"I don't think any of us have any argument about that.
"I just think the penalty is way over the top for that.
"Hope the appeals process works, and we get some people in there to look at everything who are reasonable, and hopefully get the penalties at least reduced some."
Perhaps part of this whole story is that this isn't the first questionable call by NASCAR this spring. It isn't even the second.
In fact it follows a string of questionable decisions, all the way from that weird $25,000 fine on Hamlin for some post-race comments at Phoenix to that still bizarre Penske-Keselowski-Logano rear end controversy at Texas two weeks ago, still on-going.
While NASCAR's calls may be all right by the book, there is the sense that NASCAR officials are woefully out of touch with the real world in making some of the calls.
Certainly some of these controversial calls are overshadowing the racing on the track....which, to be honest, hasn't been all that great lately. Two men, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr., dominated Texas; Kenseth dominated Kansas. Little side by side action except on double-file restarts and on pit road.
Team owner Joe Gibbs (L) and Texas NRA 500 winner Kyle Busch (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Kenseth, not the sort to get angry, despite provocation, says "I understand a lot of NASCAR's points.
"I think they do a really good job of trying to police the garage.
"I understand internal parts of the engine, that you can't tech that all the time, and they need to make it (penalties) big so people aren't messing with that.
"But this was no performance advantage. That was a mistake, a very bad mistake, a very dumb mistake."
And Kenseth well understands if the penalties stand, he will almost certainly be joining Hamlin on the sidelines this fall watching others contend for the Sprint Cup championship. He is a whopping 109 points behind tour leader Jimmie Johnson, and the five-time champ could sit out these next two races and still be far ahead of Kenseth in the standings.
"We already have two DNFs, and we were just starting to get back up in the points," Kenseth reflected. "It's still early.
"I feel, honestly, I have the strongest team in the garage.
"If anybody can come back from it and get us in a spot to have a shot at winning a championship, it's my group.
"But if the penalties are upheld -- pulling Coach Gibbs' license for six weeks and not collecting any owner's points -- when that time is over, we'll be about 35th in owner points. Obviously it's impossible to win an owner's championship.
"To say 'You can't win an owner's championship with this car this year,' for a guy (Gibbs) who has been the biggest supporter for the last 22 years, man that's a tough one to figure out."
Is NASCAR trying to send a message?
At this rate Jimmie Johnson could be an easy shoe-in for a sixth championship, with all his toughest competition sidelined.
What is really behind the rash of penalties this spring?
"Man, I don't know," Kenseth replies.
"I can't really speak to anybody's situation except ours. And why the penalties are so severe in our case, I don't understand that either.
"I don't really know.
"I have no argument that the part in there was wrong and somebody needs to pay for that, and everybody in the garage needs to understand you can't get away with that mistake. It's still wrong, and I understand all that.
"But the severity? I don't really know how or why they came up with what they did."
Kyle Busch celebrates winning last spring's Richmond 400 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)