By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Matt Kenseth was grateful for the appeals process that restored him to the top 10 in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points and crew chief Jason Ratcliff to the race track, but there was no sense of "I told you so" when Kenseth talked to reporters Friday morning at Darlington.
Joe Gibbs Racing won substantial reductions of penalties assessed by NASCAR after the sanctioning body found an underweight connecting rod in the engine of the No. 20 Toyota Camry that Kenseth drove to victory Apr. 21 at Kansas Speedway.
"I don't know about 'vindicated,' " Kenseth said in a response to a question from the NASCAR Wire Service. "I still feel bad we were in that spot to start with to even have a penalty, to even really put NASCAR in that position to have to react and to do something.
"That's really your goal, is to never be in that spot. Certainly, I think these penalties are way more in line with what I initially thought that it would be compared to things that had happened in the past and things like that. I thought this was closer to what I thought it was going to be to start with."
NASCAR originally slapped Ratcliff with a $200,000 fine and suspension for six Cup points events. Kenseth was docked 50 championship points and fell out of the top 10. Team owner Joe Gibbs was docked 50 owner points and suspended for six events, during which the No. 20 car would not have been allowed to accrue owner points, effectively ending its prospects for an owners' championship.
Gibbs appealed, and on Wednesday, the National Stock Car Racing Appeals Panel restored 38 of 50 points to both Kenseth and Gibbs and rescinded Gibbs' suspension. Ratcliff's suspension was reduced from six races to one, with that suspension to be served this weekend at Darlington.
The appeals panel, however, added two points to the five-point penalty levied in the manufacturers' standings against Toyota, whose Toyota Racing Development division supplied the engine that failed inspection.
To Kenseth, the rescission of most of Ratcliff's suspension was a key element.
"I think that will be a huge difference," Kenseth said. "I've got a really, really strong race team over there. I feel good about everybody and the jobs they do, but certainly Jason is the guy that makes it happen.
"I told him when it all happened I don't think I can get along without him, so I'll miss him (Friday) and (Saturday) and get through the day, although I think they're really prepared, really ready for this because they kind of were thinking it was probably coming. But I'll be really thankful I have him back next week."
When the air hit him in the face on the backstretch at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Kurt Busch knew he was in for a treat.
Busch went through rookie orientation in an IndyCar on Thursday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, pushing his Andretti Autosport ride to 218 mph, nearly 32 mph faster than Casey Mears' Sprint Cup track qualifying record of 186.293 mph.
"Right away, pulling out on the back straightaway, open cockpit, the air's hitting me in the face, when I'm doing 150, I'm like, 'This is a different world,'" Busch said Friday morning at Darlington Raceway. "Then that settled in, and then it was the rookie orientation program where you work up your speed, and it was the first time where I said, 'You ready?' and I'm talking to myself on holding it wide open through a corner.
"That's when the game changes. That's when you cross into a threshold that really challenges you as a driver."
Though Busch described the experience as a bucket-list item, it wasn't just for amusement. Busch has already discussed the possibility of running an IndyCar race this year with owner Michael Andretti, assuming the schedule and his obligations to the Furniture Row Racing Cup car would allow it.
One possibility is the IndyCar season finale at Fontana, Calif., scheduled for the night before the Chase for the Sprint Cup race at Talladega.
"We haven't really zeroed in on which race," Busch said. "Pocono's an option. Milwaukee's an option. Fontana-when I talked to (Andretti Autosport driver James) Hinchcliffe, he's like, 'Well, that's a two-to-three-lane track. That would be your best chance of not running into anything and staying out of the way.' Honestly, you can't expect to go in there and run top 10 right away, but if you're doing it with Andretti, you're going to have the best chance to run well.
"Today we're here at Darlington with our Cup car, and we have three hours of practice to get it dialed in for the Southern 500. When there's time, we'll sit down and have discussions about what could happen in the open-wheel world."
Whatever happens, driving an IndyCar at the fabled Brickyard was an eye-opening experience for the 2004 Cup champion.
"The speed is really interesting, because there's no deceleration with an IndyCar," Busch told the NASCAR Wire Service. "You're just at constant speed the whole time. With a Cup car, you have to let off the gas, slow down for the corner. You have that deceleration rate, (and) that big heavy car doesn't want to turn.
"Driving the IndyCar there at speed, full-throttle all the way around, gave me more of an appreciation for the track and the allure and the demands that it puts on a team and a driver with an open-wheel car at Indianapolis. It was quite the experience."
It was also a successful experience. Busch earned his IndyCar credential and license during the rookie orientation.
DANICA TO BACKUP
Danica Patrick's No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet SS bounced of the Turn 2 wall with about 25 minutes left in opening practice, forcing the team to roll out a backup car. Patrick had posted the 31st fastest lap in opening practice before the accident.
Patrick was new tires when she hit the wall, and crew chief Tony Gibson had just tightened up the handling characteristics of the car.
"The car was just a little more free than I thought it was," said Patrick, who was 38th fastest in the back-up car during Happy Hour. "You know, it's a learning process ... and it reminds me that, if I'm trying to achieve a balance out there on the track, I just have to discipline myself to take care of Turn 2, because it's so important to get through 3 and 4."
Last year, in her first Sprint Cup start at Darlington -- also her first Cup start at an open-motor race track-Patrick's comfort level was nil. Friday's wreck occurred in part because she felt more confident pushing the envelope on her return trip to the Lady in Black.
"Last year, we were last (in practice) and really felt very uncomfortable out there," Patrick said. "This time I felt much more comfortable, to the point that I was hanging it out a little bit more and exploring the limits of the car -- and I explored too far."