CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When Joe Gibbs publicly addressed the illegal part found in Matt Kenseth’s engine, the team owner was respectful of NASCAR’s inspection process but adamant about the importance of not sullying Joe Gibbs Racing’s reputation over an infraction he insisted was not intentional.
When an appeals board last week reduced most of the penalties NASCAR levied against JGR, Gibbs’ reaction was reserved, almost subdued. Perhaps it’s because JGR chose to do its celebrating on the race track.
JGR came roaring back from two rocky weeks fighting NASCAR by blowing the doors off the competition at Darlington Raceway, where Kenseth won the Sprint Cup race Saturday night and Kyle Busch won the Nationwide Series race Friday night.
Busch routed the field in the Nationwide race and led JGR drivers Elliott Sadler and Brian Vickers across the finish line. Kenseth wound up fifth to give JGR first, second, third and fifth in the first race of the weekend.
In the Cup race, it looked like it was going to be Busch again as he led a race-high 265 laps, but a flat tire in the homestretch caused him to fade to a sixth-place finish. Sailing past him was Kenseth for his series-leading third win of the season and teammate Denny Hamlin, who made it a 1-2 JGR finish in Hamlin’s first full race since suffering a compression fracture of a vertebra in his lower back.
Asked to explain JGR’s performance, team President J.D. Gibbs downplayed any magic formula.
“We’ve just got a great team from top to bottom, drivers, crew chiefs, guys that travel, guys back at the shop,” he said.
The sweep came on the heels of a trying two weeks for the organization.
One of the connecting rods in Kenseth’s race-winning engine from Kansas did not meet the minimum weight requirements, and NASCAR punished the organization with one of the toughest penalties in recent history. Joe Gibbs didn’t dispute the part was illegal, and manufacturer Toyota accepted full blame.
What was important to Gibbs was proving that there was no intent to deceive on the part of JGR or Toyota, and that the part did not provide any competitive advantage. So the team went through the appeals process for the first time in its history, and won a rare victory at the first level in getting most of the penalties reduced.
Kenseth still had to go to Darlington without crew chief Jason Ratcliff, who had his suspension reduced from six races to one.
It’s been seven years since Tony Stewart gave JGR its last Cup title, and the team has gone down swinging several times since with both Busch and Hamlin. It’s too early to tell whether this year will be the season JGR puts together a full season, but the performance is high right now.