They come to Talladega a week after NASCAR hit them with medieval penalties over an underweight connecting rod in their winning Kansas car.
Kenseth won the last race at Talladega, in the fall, and his run at Daytona in February showed he still is strong on restrictor-plate tracks with a new team.
As Kenseth and JGR await their May 8 appeal hearing, a win in Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 sure would feel nice.
“Looking forward to going to Talladega,” Kenseth said Tuesday in a NASCAR conference call with reporters.
Before the call, Kenseth’s line could have been followed by, “No NASCAR driver said ever.”
But there’s every reason to believe Kenseth could win again at Talladega on Sunday. Presuming he does and his car passes post-race inspection, a victory would validate a driver and team eager to prove it had no intention of cheating at Kansas and would have won anyway.
The plight of Kenseth and JGR dominated NASCAR headlines headed into this past weekend’s race at Richmond, where he won the pole and finished seventh.
After Kenseth won at Kansas on April 21, NASCAR inspectors found that one of eight connecting rods in his car missed the minimum weight standard by 2.7 grams.
NASCAR penalized by the pound, stripping Kenseth of 50 Sprint Cup points, fining crew chief Jason Ratcliff $200,000 and suspending Ratcliff six races. The sport’s governing body also froze Gibbs’ owners license for six races, meaning he gets no owner points for anything Kenseth’s No. 20 car does on the track over that span.
Kenseth called the penalties “grossly unfair” and “borderline shameful” this past weekend in Richmond.
Gibbs has acknowledged that penalties were necessary but has appealed their severity. The penalties are on hold, pending the appeal.
Gibbs has gone to pains to point out that JGR gets its Sprint Cup engines from Toyota Racing Development, and the underweight rod came from an outside vendor. He also stressed that the other seven rods in Kenseth’s Kansas car met the 525-gram standard, and the eight rods averaged above the standard.
“When you have motor experts look at it, what they would say is, there is no advantage to having that one light rod in that motor,” Gibbs said this past weekend. “That’s one thing that’s very important to me is, the intent here was not to get an unfair advantage in any way. That’s very important to me.”
NASCAR officials don’t sound ready to back down.
“As everyone knows, there are a few things that are understood in the garage area that are big,” Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s vice president for competition, said this past week at Richmond. “When you talk about engines, you talk about tires, and you talk about fuel.
“That’s a common thread that’s been understood, and it’s stood the test of time for the last 65 years. Don’t mess with those areas. And the penalties are severe.”
Pemberton said NASCAR must hold teams accountable for quality control, calling impractical to sanction outside vendors.
Kenseth declined to comment about the penalties Tuesday, choosing to let the appeals process play out. For now, he, Ratcliff and JGR will operate normally.
That’s good for Kenseth and the team’s chances to win Sunday at Talladega.
For starters, JGR will have a fourth car on Talladega’s 2.66-mile tri-oval with veteran Elliott Sadler, now a full-time Nationawide Series driver for Gibbs, making one of his three Sprint Cup appearances this season. The more drafting help the better at Talladega.
Also, Kenseth’s car looked strong in the Daytona 500, the season’s only other restrictor-plate race to date. He led a race-high 86 laps before engine failure ended his day on lap 149.
He’s coming off 2012, when he posted a 2.0 average finish in plate races for Rousch-Fenway Racing.
Sports columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576, email@example.com. On Twitter @jmedley_star.