FORT WORTH, Texas — While Matt Kenseth pleaded his case to NASCAR’s final appeals officer in one last-ditch effort Thursday for NASCAR to permit him to race this weekend, Erik Jones talked about possibly driving Kenseth’s car.
Jones, at just age 19, knew the drill. He couldn’t say he for sure would drive the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 car at Texas Motor Speedway. All he would say is that, if he did end up driving it, he’d do the best he can.
It was a moment of political correctness that capped a week of not so politically correct moments. As unpredictable as the first few days of the week were, everyone in the room knew Jones would drive the car this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.
Sure, NASCAR has lost appeals in the past. But behavioral penalties are extremely hard to overturn. NASCAR’s rulebook states that behavioral penalties are “handled on a case-by-case basis” and that “due to their individual nature, and the context in which they may have occurred, behavioral infractions do not lend themselves to a structure.”
JGR apparently argued that the penalty was too harsh and inconsistent with past penalties, and afterward it appeared Gibbs tried to play the “nice guy” card — in other words, Kenseth doesn’t have a Kyle Busch history.
None of that was going to work. And, in about the only thing that was predictable this week, Kenseth lost his appeals.
But predicting what happens next is more difficult. NASCAR apparently sent a message that, if a driver several laps down not in the Chase for the Sprint Cup takes out a driver leading the race who is in the Chase, that will have severe consequences.
“We don’t like judgment calls,” said four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon. “We like things to be clear. And I think we’re all pretty clear now.”
NASCAR might have sent a message, but where the racing goes from here, for the three weeks left in the 2015 season and beyond, is questionable. Coincidentally, drivers began practice Friday at a racetrack whose theme is “No Limits” — in a week when NASCAR is grappling with setting some limits.
A defiant Kenseth vowed: “I’m not going to change who I am. I am not going to change what I stand for. I’m not going to change how I race,” and, on Twitter, when told he should have no regrets, he responded: “I don’t.”
NASCAR’s biggest problem is that if Kenseth has no regrets, is stuff really over?
What have the drivers learned?
“I don’t know,” said Kenseth teammate Carl Edwards, who once had a long-running feud with Brad Keselowski. “I guess, not really, no. … I don’t know what it all means. My plan is to just go forward and race like I have all year. There are so many factors in this situation, so many different things happening, it’s hard to really line it all up and say, ‘This is why this happened, and this is how to proceed going forward.’
“It seems pretty complex. I’m just going to focus on my deal and move on.”
The two-race suspension could cost Kenseth more than $1 million in purse and prize fund money, but it likely will be closer to $400,000 to $500,000. Edwards said Kenseth has participated in a group text talking about fantasy football.
“Guys have wrecked each other since racing started,” said driver Martin Truex Jr. “That’s not going to change. Guys get mad all the time.
“I think that people will go about it differently now because of what happened this week, for sure. How far that goes, I’m not real sure. We’ll have to wait and see.”
Edwards said drivers race the way they want to be raced “and in some ways you have to demand the same in return.”
Kenseth made that demand, though, and he’s now benched. NASCAR chairman Brian France told SiriusXM Radio’s NASCAR channel earlier this week that NASCAR can describe the line for drivers in five minutes and that, even if they say they don’t know the line, they do.
But all the drivers have their own line. So, in some ways that’s why they will just try to do what they do.
“It was definitely a shock, the penalty, to me,” Edwards said. “I think everyone will be on pretty decent behavior because of that. If that’s how it’s going to be, you definitely have to be careful.”
There is one driver — Gordon, the winner at Martinsville — in the race Sunday at Texas who will be in a similar position as Logano was in Kansas, which started this three-week stretch of scrutiny of drivers causing wrecks that could affect the Chase.
If Gordon is running second with five laps left at Texas, he will have a decision to make. He could turn someone and not only win but potentially keep another driver from advancing to be among the four drivers eligible for the championship in two weeks at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“I’m probably a little less aggressive in that scenario,” Gordon said. “If that was for the win at Homestead, now, that is a different scenario — you’re talking about for the championship.
“For us this weekend, having a solid performance and if we have a shot at the win and if I could do it a clean way, I will go for it.”
Then Gordon, without missing a beat, talked about his driver code. He has his list in his memory bank, and it stems to a year ago at Texas when Keselowski rubbed doors with him, resulting in a tire rub and a spin and eventually a fight on pit road.
“If it’s the 2 car [of Brad Keselowski], that’s going to be different,” Gordon said. “But to just go do that to whoever I’m racing in the Chase when I feel like it’s a little more desperate or it’s because they were blocking me and I didn’t like that, I don’t know if that’s worth it because, in my opinion, that is going to come back to you possibly over the next couple of weeks, possibly at Homestead.”
Logano says he won’t do anything different.
“Does it change the way I would handle a situation? Probably not,” Logano said. “Does it change the way other people would handle a situation? I can’t answer that. I don’t know.
“I think we all did learn what NASCAR’s stance is on this, and that is something we will all put in our memory bank and know that going into the future.”