Matt Kenseth learns hard lesson about NASCAR’s inconsistent penalties –

Matt Kenseth learned a couple of hard lessons this week.

One is that retaliation, no matter how satisfying, can be costly.

MORE: Why Kenseth had to retaliate | Chase standings | Texas schedule

The second: NASCAR is unpredictable and inconsistent in doling out punishment for actions on the track. The punishment rarely fits the crime — except in the eyes of the law.

Kenseth, who wrecked Joey Logano on Sunday in retaliation for being wrecked by Logano two weeks ago at Kansas, was suspended two races.

He expected a harsh penalty — a steep fine, plus a loss of points — but a two-race suspension is much more severe than NASCAR’s typical reaction to such incidents. Kenseth and Joe Gibbs Racing have an appeal hearing on Thursday.

There are two compelling truths about NASCAR and the way it runs America’s most popular motorsport.

One, the sanctioning body will do whatever it takes to make sure its races are as competitive and exciting as possible, even if it means changing the rules every year — or every week. That philosophy has served NASCAR well for more than 65 years.

The other truth is this: NASCAR doesn’t care whether it is consistent or fair when it comes to driver discipline. It pays little attention to precedent or whether it is being consistent with how it polices the sport. Rulings in similar cases often are ignored.

In a sport that rewards consistency, NASCAR is the sport’s least consistent entity.

PHOTO: Must-see Martinsville photos | Jeff Gordon’s final season | StockCartoons

One week a driver might get fined for fighting or intentionally wrecking another driver; the next week, he might not. One driver might get fined for inciting a brawl on pit road; another might not. Often it seems to depend on which way the political winds are blowing at the time.

In Kenseth’s case, he retaliated while Logano was leading the race, and he did it during a key Chase race, while Logano was in prime position to win his first championship. Logano now must win one of the next two races to keep his championship hopes alive. Sprint Cup runs at Texas this week and then goes to Phoenix.

To some, Kenseth’s two-race suspension seems warranted. Never mind that Logano wrecked Kenseth at Kansas, preventing him from winning a race he was leading in hope of advancing out of the three-race round. Coupled with his results at Talladega the following week, Kenseth’s championship dream died.

What is disconcerting is that the two-race suspension is not how NASCAR typically reacts to such incidents. In the recent past, it has been tolerant of drivers policing themselves on the track and settling their differences.

Now it is sending mixed messages.

Drivers, teams and fans never know how NASCAR will rule or what the penalty might be for emotional outbursts. Such incidents fall under its dubious “actions detrimental to NASCAR” clause, an intentionally vague statute that gives it the power to do whatever it wants depending on the climate or the circumstances.

Even if NASCAR did the right thing in coming down hard on Kenseth and trying to quell retaliation during the Chase, such a harsh penalty is contrary to previous rulings. Arbitrary and inconsistent decisions are a bone of contention for both competitors and fans and cast NASCAR in a poor light. For a sport that is chasing the NFL for exposure and TV ratings, it flip-flops more than Roger Goodell.

Denny Hamlin, Kenseth’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate and a former teammate with Logano, is baffled by NASCAR’s ruling.

“I probably am more confused (now) than I was before,” Hamlin said Tuesday on Fox’s NASCAR Race Hub. “They are the parent figure within our organization and tell us what the rules are. We try to play by them every week. Sometimes those rules are gray and we don’t know what the penalties are each week, and I think (this is) kind of more in that line right now.”

If what Kenseth did to Logano was wrong and unjust, so is NASCAR’s treatment of Kenseth. At least Logano knew what was coming — or should have.

Had Kenseth known that he would be suspended two races for retaliating, he might not have taken out Logano at Martinsville. He might have waited and delivered his message when the consequences weren’t quite so severe for either driver.

But NASCAR has no rule against retaliation, has no precedent for suspending drivers for retaliating and has a long history of encouraging similar behavior, frequently using such incidents in marketing campaigns to promote the passion and drama of stockcar racing.

Remember the old “boys, have at it” mantra? It now seems to be, “boys, we’ve had it.”

Five years ago, NASCAR took the gloves off, publicly telling competitors and fans that practically anything goes on the track. If you want to rough up another driver, fine. If you want to take someone out to win a race, have at it. If you feel the need to retaliate or enact revenge over being wrecked, more power to you. Do it without repercussions.

NASCAR allowed drivers to police themselves during a 2010 season that featured some of the best drama and most exciting competition in years.

It backed away from that precipice in recent years, but has no precedent for suspending a driver for retaliating in a Sprint Cup race.

Jeff Gordon wasn’t suspended for taking out Clint Bowyer at Phoenix in 2012, a move that cost Bowyer a shot at the championship.

David Reutimann wasn’t suspended for retaliating against Kyle Busch in 2010, a move that dropped Busch from third to seventh in the Chase standings. (Busch was suspended one race for retaliating against Ron Hornaday in a 2011 truck race, but Busch was on probation that season and warned after repeated incidents.)

In recent years, NASCAR allowed everything from drivers ramming into cars on pit road to crew brawls to outright fighting without suspending drivers. It allowed Brad Keselowski to speed through a garage bay last year at Charlotte as he tried to run down and ram into Denny Hamlin’s car — a move that could have endangered numerous innocent bystanders.

And yet NASCAR comes down hard on Kenseth for wrecking Logano on the track. Even given the circumstances — Kenseth was several laps down, while Logano was leading the race — the punishment doesn’t fit the crime, especially since Kenseth was following the code drivers established for handling such disputes. A code NASCAR tacitly approved.

Kenseth did what practically any driver would do after being wrecked in a crucial race with a championship on the line.

“Any racecar driver that’s been doing this long enough understands what the driver code is, and I feel like … that driver code is more compromised now than ever,” Hamlin said. “NASCAR said in years past, and they said even this year, that they like the drivers to police themselves. Matt was policing himself and he was policing the driver code.”

As of Tuesday, that driver code apparently no longer exists.

NASCAR has declared such reactions are no longer acceptable and will bring a harsh penalty.

That is a precedent.

Until next week, when it might decide to once again throw precedent aside.


Write a Reply or Comment:

You must be logged in to post a comment.