Joe Gibbs: What next? When's the appeal? Did NASCAR overreach?
By Mike Mulhern
You think it's easy being Joe Gibbs?
Just slap a few backs, shake a few hands, enjoy a few fetes, wheel and deal a few million here and there, and enjoy things just happening?
Well, most of the time it seems just like that.
However the Super Bowl kingpin, who made such a successful and dramatic transition to NASCAR racing, does have his moments....
Like with Tony Stewart for 10 years....and now with Kyle Busch for more than five years....and lately with Denny Hamlin and all that jazz.
Now with Matt Kenseth?
Of all the men on all the teams in this sport Kenseth would seem almost the last man to get caught up in a controversy.
Yet here he is, facing the potential loss of a spot in the championship playoffs, and the loss of his crew chief for six weeks, and huge points deductions, and huge fines....for an engine that didn't quite make spec post-race after his Kansas win.
And the Gibbs guys don't even build their own engines anymore. The motors are all hand-crafted by Toyota specialists in Los Angeles and shipped to North Carolina.
This on top of Hamlin having been sidelined, and essentially out of the championship already too.
So that wasn't a game face Gibbs was wearing here Friday afternoon, as he added his comments to the exceptionally well laid out PR disaster game plan.
"When you're faced with something like this, you want to make sure you go through it the right way," Gibbs began.
"For all of our employees, all 450, and all of our partners, this is a very important deal for us.
"We value our NASCAR partnership very much. We've been together -- working together -- for 22 years, and we value our relationship.
"Certainly we do not want to be on the wrong side of any rules.
"And we have a great partner in TRD. Over the six years we've been together, a lot of things come up. And we're going to stand together and work our way through this and try to handle it the right way. We believe we are going to be together for a long time."
The official story line is that one of the engine connecting rods in Kenseth's Kansas engine was slightly lighter than spec, about 2.5 grams lighter than the 525 grams rules required. That was described as the weight of two cotton balls.
However not everyone here is buying that line. The rumbling in the garage is that NASCAR inspectors may have seen something they didn't like in Kenseth's winning Las Vegas engine, and again in Kyle Busch's winning Texas engine.
"There's more to it than just one connecting rod," one top team owner complained.
However NASCAR and Gibbs both insist there was nothing untoward until Kansas.
Denny Hamlin, whose injured back has him sidelined the next few weeks, talks with Joe Gibbs (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Gibbs concedes Kenseth's engine didn't meet spec. "That goes against the rules, and we understand that. We know there's going to be a penalty.
"What we're going to appeal is the severity of the penalties."
And just how?
By pleading 'no intent.'
That, however, is almost never a successful defense in NASCAR country. As NASCAR's Robin Pemberton said Friday "we're not here to judge the performance. We are strictly here to regulate the rule book and keep a level playing field and make sure everybody gets a fair chance.
"Everyone knows there are a few things that are big: engines, tires, fuel. Don't mess with those areas; the penalties are severe.
"Some of our most severe penalties over time have surrounded engine infractions."
The connecting rod in question: "It's a part that didn't meet spec," Pemberton says. "It's not a gray area. There are numbers in the books.
"We don't take lightly somebody being out of bounds when it comes to an engine."
Nevertheless Gibbs made the case that there was no intent with Kenseth's engine problem: "That's one thing very important to me -- the intent here was not to get an unfair advantage in any way.
"Basically that's what our appeal is going to be."
And Gibbs made a personal point about his philosophy of "intent."
"For me personally, in my entire life, just about every decision I've made, I felt intent was very important.
"Whether it was somebody doing something in a situation where somebody has done something maybe against me, the first thing I wanted to know is what was their intent? Was it an accident? Was it a mistake, or did they purposely try and do something?"
Gibbs, a very religious man, says he is taking this entire situation very personally: "because you spend your life trying to live a certain way. That's a real personal thing, something that has a big effect on me.
"This is very, very important... and probably one of the bigger things that has happened in my life professionally."
As sidelight to all this is the suddenly curious question of how NASCAR plans to handle Gibbs' "suspension," if upheld.
The precise phrasing in NASCAR's penalty release is that Gibbs' "owner's license for the No. 20 NASCAR Sprint Cup car suspended."
Does that mean Gibbs will not be allowed into a track? That is normally the way NASCAR handles things.
However Friday both Pemberton and Gibbs tried to sidestep that question.
" When you're suspended from NASCAR, you lose certain rights," Pemberton says. "But Joe owns Nationwide cars and other things that are here. There is so much that's happened this week... and I know the answer, but right now I can't recall the answer."
Gibbs? "I don't know. I think that is still unclear to me. I think we'll get that answer somewhere down the road."
And then there is the NASCAR precedent in all this: the 1991 illegal engine in Junior Johnson's car at the Charlotte All-Star race. NASCAR then suspended Johnson as team owner for 12 weeks, suspended crew chief Tim Brewer for 12 weeks too, suspended driver Tommy Ellis for 12 weeks. (Ellis was driving that weekend as a substitute for injured Geoff Bodine.) On appeal the suspensions were cut to four weeks but still upheld.
If NASCAR were to follow that precedent here, Kenseth and Gibbs would both be suspended.
However suspending Kenseth could create an even bigger controversy that what NASCAR has already created.
It's not always easy being Joe Gibbs, as this face shows (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)