RICHMOND, Va. — So far this season, there’s only one entity that has been able to slow Joe Gibbs Racing’s run in the Sprint Cup Series.
It’s not one any race team would want lined up against it.
While JGR drivers Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch have combined to win four of the eight Cup races run thus far, NASCAR took a hefty bite out of one of the Gibbs driver’s success this week.
Kenseth, who earned his second win of the season last weekend at Kansas, was docked 50 points by NASCAR on Wednesday and had his crew chief, Jason Ratliff, suspended for six races. The engine in Kenseth’s No.20 racing-winning car failed routine post-race inspection.
Ratcliff also was fined $200,000 and Kenseth’s car can’t collect owner’s points for six races. The points reduction dropped Kenseth to 14th in the series standings, into a tie with Jeff Gordon.
Being on the bad side of NASCAR is not a place JGR owner Joe Gibbs enjoys finding himself.
“We value our NASCAR partnership very much. We’ve been together, working together for 22 years and we value our relationship with them,” Gibbs said.
“Certainly, we do not want to be on the wrong side of any rules. That’s our goal.”
JGR is appealing the penalties, which were handed out because one of the connecting rods in the No. 20 car’s engine failed to meet the minimum weight requirement.
There is little reason to believe the penalties, should they stand, will slow JGR’s performance.
In fact, there is a strong chance JGR will visit Victory Lane again following Saturday night’s Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway. Kenseth will start from the pole - the second consecutive week he’s won the pole - while his teammate Busch has won the spring Richmond races the past four seasons.
“If it’s possible, we’re more motivated than ever,” Kenseth said.
Busch’s average finishing position of 5.4 is tops among all active drivers at Richmond. He has completed all but one of the 6,410 laps run in his 16 career Richmond starts.
“I think a lot of it comes from Denny (Hamlin), being that it’s his home track. I’ve been good there in Hendrick and JGR cars. But Denny and I really feed off each other an awful lot in Richmond,” Busch said.
“We use each other a ton there just to be sure we can beat the rest of the competition, of course.”
Both Busch and Kenseth were fast in practice Friday as was Brian Vickers, who continues to sub for Hamlin, who broke a vertebra in his back in a wreck last month in Fontana, Calif.
It will be very difficult for Hamlin to return in time to make the Chase for the Cup, but Busch and Kenseth – even with his penalty – should have a shot at winning the series championship.
Busch is seventh in points and with two wins already should be in good shape for at least a wild-card berth. Kenseth can easily make it back into the Top 10 from where he is now, plus he has at least one win to use toward a wild-card berth.
Before the penalty, Gibbs said this was the most excited he’s ever been coming to the track each week because he felt all three teams had a chance to win.
Has that view changed in light of the penalties?
“I think that is something we’re just going to deal with. This is still fairly recent,” Gibbs said. “We haven’t had long to kind of look at this and kind of digest it.
“Hopefully, we go through the appeal process and then I think whatever the outcome is, we have to just make good decisions and try and deal with it.”
Gibbs had faced several difficult challenges over his career as both an NFL coach and NASCAR team owner. He said he’s never taken success for granted.
“I don’t know how you could ever be arrogant or cocky in sports because you’re never more than seven days from getting pounded. I’m always looking for what’s coming after us next,” he said.
“I guess that’s the reason that we really like it, too. It’s really hard, so I think the best people in the world racing race cars are doing it at this level.
“You are trying to beat the best people in the world. That’s a pretty tough deal.”