RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Joe Gibbs understands that NASCAR must enforce the rule book and his team deserved a penalty for an illegal part in Matt Kenseth's engine.
The team owner just disagrees with the severity of the penalties levied against Joe Gibbs Racing this week.
More importantly, he's deeply troubled with the perception JGR cheated.
"You spend your life trying to live a certain way. That's a real personal thing and is something that has a big effect on me," said Gibbs, who added that when someone wrongs him, he always searches for intent.
"The first thing I wanted to know was: 'What was their intent?'" Gibbs said Friday. "Was it an accident, was it a mistake or did they purposefully try to do something? That's important to me. This motor and what happened, there was not an attempt to circumvent the rules or have an unfair competitive advantage."
JGR made a strong statement that the organization is weathering this storm in Friday qualifying at Richmond International Raceway, where Kenseth won the pole. Brian Vickers was second to make it an all-JGR front row for Saturday night's race.
The pole-winning run negates at least one portion of the penalty levied against Kenseth on Wednesday, when NASCAR said the pole he won last week at Kansas would not count toward eligibility for next year's preseason race at Daytona.
It was part of a harsh penalty levied by NASCAR, which maintained it's not its responsibility to determine intent or if the infraction provided an advantage when doling out punishment.
"Everybody's asked the same thing — why aren't things more black and white?" NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said. "It's too light. It's too heavy. It's too wide. It's too high. It's too low. It's black and white, and we can't judge the performance because some guys do a better job of it than others, quite frankly."
The issue is not whether the part was illegal, because JGR admits one of eight connecting rods failed to meet the minimum weight requirement. But the engine came from manufacturer Toyota Racing Development, and JGR is questioning the fairness in NASCAR's harsh ruling against the team.
The reasoning, Pemberton said Friday, is two-fold.
"When you talk about engines, you talk about tires, and you talk about fuel, that's a common thread that's been understood, and it's stood the test of time for the last 65 years: Don't mess with those areas, and the penalties are severe," Pemberton said.
But NASCAR also holds the team ultimately responsible for every piece of the car presented at inspection.
"At this time we will not and cannot penalize vendors," Pemberton said. "We'd be at it all day long, whether it was a shock that went bad, a spring that collapsed that caused the car (to be) low or any of those things.
"But when you go down that road, there are a million pieces on these cars, and so we choose to go down the path that it's the team's responsibility for quality control, to check on the parts and pieces that they bring and compete with at the racetrack."
Per NASCAR policy, Kenseth's race-winning engine from Sunday at Kansas was taken back to the North Carolina Research & Development Center for a thorough inspection. Once opened up to NASCAR inspectors, one connecting rod was found to be approximately three grams — less than the weight of an envelope — too light.
Kenseth had everything but his trophy taken away, with NASCAR docking him 50 points, plus the three bonus points he earned for the win. Crew chief Jason Ratcliff was fined $200,000 and he and Gibbs were both suspended for six races.
JGR is appealing, so Ratcliff and Gibbs could work Friday at Richmond International Raceway, where Kenseth has gone on record in calling the penalties "grossly unfair" and "borderline shameful."
It's the first technical penalty JGR has appealed in 22 years, Gibbs said.
"One thing that is very important to me is the intent here was not to get an unfair advantage in any way. That's very important to me," said Gibbs, adding that 10 TRD engines have been inspected this year, eight from JGR, without an issue.
"I think basically that's what our appeal is going to be. We want to go forward and go through that process and what we'll be appealing will be the severe nature of the penalties."
Ratcliff also insisted that the No. 20 Toyota had no advantage from the one light connecting rod.
"I respect NASCAR's view on it as far as the part was illegal so by the letter of the law, the part's illegal and there's consequences for that. I do not feel like the spirit of the law was compromised," he said. "That's where we felt like the severity of the penalty is extremely harsh.
"We won Kansas, you can bet your bottom dollar on that. You make that change in that engine and that race doesn't change a bit."
The engines are made by TRD in Costa Mesa, Calif., and shipped to JGR's shop in North Carolina. JGR can't touch the engines beyond installing them in the cars, and TRD has accepted responsibility for the mistake. TRD officials said the manufacturer shipped the part with paperwork that indicated its correct weight, and TRD employees simply missed the fact it was not legal.
Ratcliff argued TRD should have felt the burden of the penalty, not JGR. Although NASCAR did dock Toyota five manufacturer points, the bulk of the penalty went against Gibbs and Ratcliff, who wasn't sure if he would have to pay the $200,000 himself. "I hope not. If I do I'm going to be broke — we need to start a relief fund," he said.
"Back in the day, most of the engines were built by the race team," Ratcliff said. "Now you have a handful of major engine builders that supply engines to most all the teams in the garage. How do you hold them accountable? I think it's time for some change on how NASCAR approaches it because times have changed so much."
The penalties against JGR came a week after NASCAR penalized Penske Racing for allegedly using illegal parts in the rear suspension of defending champion Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano's cars.
Keselowski and Logano were docked 25 points apiece, their crew chiefs were fined a total of $200,000 and were suspended along with five other Penske employees for six races. Penske's appeal will be heard next Wednesday, and team owner Roger Penske has maintained they were working in a gray area of the rule book.
The Penske and Gibbs cases aren't similar in that Penske has a difference of opinion about a rule, where the Gibbs group will argue the severity of the fines.
Pemberton stood by his rules are rules defense.
"We feel like we're consistent, but not every violation is exactly the same," Pemberton said. "We do our best and we feel like we do a good job interpreting the rules and levying the penalties they deserve."