NASCAR deserves much of the blame for what it did Tuesday to Matt Kenseth.
Blame NASCAR for creating a virtual win-at-all-costs format with its still relatively new Chase for the Sprint Cup. Blame NASCAR for lighting the wick by celebrating an at-best borderline dirty move by Joey Logano to win at Kansas. Blame NASCAR for having set precedent by not suspending Jeff Gordon three years ago.
Kenseth did what some people would consider the right thing at the most wrong of times at Martinsville. And for that, while absorbing much of the blame, NASCAR was certainly justified in issuing a two-race suspension to the Joe Gibbs Racing driver.
Kenseth would like to argue that he had reason to dump Logano because Logano dumped him at Kansas, taking away Kenseth’s best chance, at the time, to advance to the Eliminator Round of the Chase. He could add that Logano’s Penske Racing teammate, Brad Keselowski, took away his chance to win the race at Martinsville, when he unintentionally ran into him earlier in Sunday’s race as part of the jockeying on restarts.
And Kenseth would be right.
But just like in baseball, the code would say that if a player makes a hard, cleats-up slide that injures a player, then sending a beanball to his head his next time to the plate would send a message. The league’s response would be, justified by player code or not, the pitcher who throws the beanball then gets suspended.
This is similar. Kenseth sent the message to Logano not to race him recklessly as he did at Kansas. Logano, who didn’t have to turn Kenseth considering he had already won at Charlotte and therefore had advanced to the next round of the Chase anyway, was totally unrepentant for his move. It irked Kenseth, and he responded with a move that many drivers would applaud as he righted the wrong done to him at Kansas. Now Kenseth must pay the price.
Some would consider a two-race punishment, when already out of the Chase, worth it, more an impact on his wallet and reputation. Such is the price for defending one’s honor in this system NASCAR created.
The 2003 Sprint Cup champion — who, let’s not forget, once frustrated Gordon to the point of a postrace altercation at Bristol — did something completely dirty and close to shameful at Martinsville in response to a format that allows and even encourages some nastiness. Although Kenseth didn’t specifically admit he intentionally wrecked Logano, the way he didn’t try to avoid the contact after it happened and the damage to both cars is convincing enough.
Many fans have said on social media Kevin Harvick‘s move at Talladega a week earlier was just as convincing, but moving to a higher lane in hopes of getting a push is a legitimate enough argument at Talladega to create doubt. Such little doubt exists in Kenseth’s move that NASCAR had to take action.
The other factor hard to ignore — although unclear whether it had an impact on NASCAR’s decision — is Kenseth’s actions helped his teammates Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards. He probably had no intention of helping his teammates, but NASCAR should take that residual effect quite seriously considering the sensitivity to any team member manipulating results for the help of another.
Also, don’t forget Kenseth finished 14th at Kansas, which by itself wouldn’t eliminate Kenseth from the Chase. Three drivers — Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. — all advanced into the Eliminator Round with one race finish worse than 14th. So if Kenseth didn’t have the trouble at least part of his own doing a week earlier at Charlotte, the wreck at Kansas didn’t ruin Kenseth’s chances, especially when eight advance compared to the four out of the current round.
Now fast-forward to Martinsville: Kenseth’s wreck of Logano resulted in a 37th-place finish for Logano. It is likely that without a win, Logano cannot make up those points to become one of the four drivers to advance to the next round. Kenseth has all but forced Logano to win one of the next two events, delivering a payback that in reality took more from Logano than what Logano took from Kenseth.
NASCAR bears some of the responsibility in all this. It created this Chase for the Sprint Cup elimination format, and NASCAR chairman Brian France acknowledged that they knew this format would put a spotlight on their officiating. Maybe he didn’t realize that it also put the spotlight on everything he says. The “quintessential NASCAR” line he delivered about Logano’s move at Kansas was a mistake because it implied that actions — if they help a driver win a championship — don’t have consequences.
Kenseth proved that there has to be consequences and, bottom line, this will be a self-policing sport if a driver takes that win-at-all-costs attitude.
If NASCAR condoned Kenseth’s actions and vigilante justice, it would just encourage an increased sense of lawlessness in a sport where teams need to have some sort of order to encourage fair competition and keep things safe. In a perfect world, NASCAR would crown a champion with the most wins throughout the season, but the essence of having a points system creates an atmosphere that winning at all costs isn’t the proper way to operate.
NASCAR had to act. If it didn’t, what would prevent Penske development driver Ryan Blaney from taking out JGR’s Edwards — still in championship contention — this week in retaliation for JGR driver Kenseth wrecking Penske’s Logano?
Last year, Harvick and his team earned a $4.83 million bonus for winning the championship. The bonus for fifth was $1.31 million. So that’s the difference between having a shot at the title at Homestead and not. Some fans will say retaliation is retaliation, and drivers have been retaliating against each other for 60 years. But when officiating a sport, a move that can have a $3.5 million consequence can’t be blown off as “that’s racing.”
Drivers now have plenty of reasons to take things into their own hands. If NASCAR wants to eliminate drivers every three races, it can’t have drivers eliminating others without a fear of consequences. Every move has to have consequences.
Logano’s move at Kansas ended up biting him at Martinsville. And Kenseth’s move at Martinsville will end up biting him by putting him on the couch. NASCAR sent a much-needed message to right the wrongs of both itself as a sanctioning body and of Kenseth himself.
Now NASCAR needs to suspend one more thing: Stop using the term “quintessential NASCAR” to talk about the racing in a format that is just two years old and has raised the stakes — and the potential lawlessness — in every race that few could envision. NASCAR has created a new type of racing. It means new types of penalties and a new way of keeping law and order.
It finally took a step in the right direction Tuesday, and unfortunately for Kenseth, he was the one who had to give NASCAR the shove to get there.