RICHMOND, Va. -- In the wake of massive penalties levied against his Joe Gibbs Racing team, Matt Kenseth could think of nothing better than recording a statement victory at Richmond International Raceway.
"Yeah, for sure," Kenseth said Saturday night. "Winning the pole was big for us. I think if we could have won the race it would have probably quieted down a little bit of the noise, and I think it would have been huge, especially for Coach (Gibbs). I knew he wanted to win bad. But we did all we could."
There were times when Kenseth looked absolutely dominant, times his team seemed to be searching, and a time on the final restart when he found himself mired in the outside line and surrounded by cars with varying tire strategies. The end result was a seventh-place finish, probably less than he had hoped for after leading a race-high 140 laps, but still a nice rebound for a team that came to the Virginia capital at an emotional low.
Kenseth and his No. 20 team were hammered with penalties by NASCAR after a connecting rod in the engine he used to win last week at Kansas proved to be lighter than the minimum allowed weight. The driver was docked 50 points, had his pole vacated, and had his victory eliminated from Chase for the Sprint Cup qualification. Crew chief Jason Ratcliff was fined $200,00 and suspended six weeks. Even Gibbs' owner license was frozen for six weeks.
Although the point deduction has already gone into effect, the other sanctions are on hold until an appeal to be heard at a later date. The Gibbs team argued that the penalties were too severe, given that the connecting rod was manufactured by a vendor, and placed in an engine built by Toyota Racing Development. Even so, its loudest statements have been on the race track, with Kenseth showing his yellow car is fast regardless how much the connecting rods inside it weigh.
Friday, the No. 20 Toyota won the pole at Richmond, earning back the berth in the 2014 Sprint Unlimited exhibition that had been struck down as part of the penalty. And once the race began Kenseth was on a rail, leading 105 of the event's opening 111 laps until the vehicle's handling began to change for the worse. "This is going to be a real ugly run," he said during a green-flag stretch in which he dropped out of the top five for the first time.
"I hate to say we got behind. I don't know that we got behind. But we were just much better before the track rubbered up," he said. "It just kind of rubbered up and got slimy and we lost the front end a little bit and just kind of struggled with that. ? Every time I thought, 'OK, we've got the right adjustment there, we're doing good on the long run, we're gaining on it,' then the caution would come out, and I would restart on the outside again and lose three or four spots. It was tough. We were good, especially on long runs, but it was hard for me to pass on short runs and really get position."
Kenseth was clearly better the longer runs went, but on a night that featured 11 cautions -- including five of them in the final 100 laps -- he didn't often get the opportunity to show it. Meanwhile, Ratcliff was trying to recapture the strength the No. 20 had shown earlier in the race, but with so many yellow flags and so little track position, it proved an uphill battle.
"It seemed like we could get the car pretty close, and come down pit road and put a set of tires on it, and it was a different animal all of the sudden," Ratcliff said. "It was hard to make heads or tails of it. At the end, I felt like we were getting it back to where we needed it to be. We just couldn't get our track position."
Even so, the car regained its footing late, and Kenseth ran third before Brian Vickers crashed in the waning laps to force a green-white-checkered finish. On the final restart Kenseth was eighth, and unable to make up much ground due to his position in the outside lane. It didn't help that he got involved in a tiff with Kurt Busch that involved the two drivers trading paint before and after the checkered flag.
"You just get stuck on the outside, and you can't go, especially if there are a couple of guys up there on different strategies, with no tires or two tires," Ratcliff said. "When they run off into (Turn) 1, the guys on old tires, they just slide off through the top. So if you're on the top, you're in trouble. We just got caught up the mess there at the end and got shoved around a little bit. But all in all, not a bad night for us."
Ratcliff said he thought he had a top-three car capable of winning the race had circumstances broken the right way at the end. It didn't happen, but it also didn't detract from what Kenseth called one of his team's more complete efforts of the season -- and one that came on the heels of duress, at that.
"Obviously, it would have made us all feel better, and I know we all wanted to win really bad for a lot of reasons," Kenseth said. "We want to win real bad every week. But the bottom line is, we did the best we can, and that's all we can do. Tonight was actually, even though the finish doesn't show it again, it was one of our strongest nights I think as far as a whole race and a team aspect. Killer pit stops, great strategy, we had a really fast car; best car I've had at Richmond probably since we won 10 years ago. So there are a lot of positives. I wish we had a little better finish out of the night."
Kenseth still moved up one spot to 13th in points, further solidifying his position in the top 20, and helping his Chase chances with the one victory he still has to his credit for wild card qualification. Even in the wake of massive penalties, the No. 20 team maintained its competitive poise. But to respond with a victory -- well, that would have been the ultimate statement.
"Sure. Yeah," Ratcliff said. "I mean, we want to win every weekend. But that would have been really sweet, you know? I think it would have shifted the focus in a different direction, and that's what we need right now."
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