Matt Kenseth is as easy-going as any driver in NASCAR. He's constantly playing pranks on his crew guys (and on certain media members) and he cracks as many under-his-breath jokes as anyone you'll ever meet. So it takes a lot to upset this mild-mannered 41-year-old native of Cambridge, Wisc., but that was precisely what NASCAR did on Tuesday.
After Kenseth took the checkered flag last Sunday at Kansas Speedway, NASCAR inspected his No. 20 Toyota -- just as the governing body does with all race-winning cars. NASCAR officials discovered that one of the connecting rods in Kenseth's engine fell short of the minimum weight of 525 grams -- by 2.7 grams, though the combined weight of all eight more than met regulations. NASCAR still issued a crippling series of penalties to Kenseth and his team, Joe Gibbs Racing: It docked him 50 points and announced that his victory wouldn't be counted for bonus points for the Chase or for a wild-card slot. NASCAR also suspended Jason Ratcliffe, Kenseth's crew chief, for six races and fined him $200,000 while also taking away 50 car owner points from Joe Gibbs, whose owner's license was suspended for the next six races (which will make it virtually impossible for him to win the owner's championship with the No. 20 car).
Appearing at news conference on Thursday at Richmond International Speedway, the site of Saturday night's Cup race, Kenseth blasted NASCAR, calling the penalties "grossly unfair" and "borderline shameful." The team had acknowledged that the part was illegal and it was placed in the engine by accident, but Kenseth was adamant that no mechanical or competitive advantage was gained by the part, which was given to Gibbs by Toyota Racing Development.
"Anybody in the garage, any knowledgeable, reputable, unbiased engine builder, they know there was no advantage there," Kenseth said. "There was probably a disadvantage there, if nothing else, for it being unbalanced."
A two-time winner this season, Kenseth dropped from eighth to 14th in the standings. His team is appealing the penalties -- which means Ratcliffe will be atop the No. 20 pit box this weekend -- and look for Kenseth to be extremely determined on the track on Saturday night.
Kenseth, who had spent his first 13 seasons at Roush-Fenway Racing, moved to Gibbs during the off-season, and so far in 2013 he's appeared recharged and re-energized. He finished seventh in the final standings last year-- his team faded in the final months of the season -- but no one has been faster this season on 1.5-mile tracks. He won at Las Vegas and Kansas (both are 1.5-milers) and this should bode well for his title hopes if he can make the Chase. After all, five of the 10-playoff races take place on intermediate-length venues that have similar characteristics to Vegas and Kansas.
How will Kenseth fare at Richmond? He has one career victory at the .75-mile short track (in 2002) and in 26 starts at RIR his average finish is 16.5, but no team in NASCAR will be more motivated than the 20 crew on Saturday night. They want to prove that they won last week on merit -- not because of an illegal part. Kenseth is my pick to win.
Here are four other drivers to watch at Richmond, the ninth race of the 2013 Cup season:
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Earnhardt had a car that appeared capable of challenging for the win last Sunday at Kansas, but he lost acres of track position due to an untimely late caution and finished 16th. The No. 88 team is a bit of mini-slump right now. Over the last three weeks, Earnhardt has failed to crack the top 15 and he's dropped from first to fifth in the standings.
Statistically, Richmond (where his career average finish is 13.9) is Earnhardt's fourth best track on the Cup circuit behind Bristol (11.6), Atlanta (12.5), and Martinsville (13.4). Three of these venues are short tracks, which tells you that in spite of his reputation for sterling performances at the superspeedways of Daytona and Talladega, his biggest talent is wheeling his Chevy through traffic at these smaller tracks.
Earnhardt, who finished second in this race last year, should be good for top-five run on Saturday night.
2. Kyle Busch
On Sunday, Busch crashed into the wall early at Kansas and finished 39th. Still, over the last six weeks, no driver has been as dominating. He has two wins during that stretch and five top-five finishes. There's little reason to believe that trend won't continue at Richmond, where Busch has won three of the last eight races and finished sixth or better in seven of those events. Look for him to battle Kenseth, his teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, for the checkered flag.
3. Jimmie Johnson
After finishing third at Kansas, Johnson, the five-time Cup champion, is back in a familiar place: atop the points standings.
The last time NASCAR stopped at a short track -- Martinsville Speedway on April 7 -- Johnson led 346 of the 500 laps and cruised to the checkered flag. It was, to date, the single most dominating performance of 2013.
Can he replicate that effort on Saturday night? He has three career wins at Richmond and finished sixth in this event last year. He should run be near the front all night long.
4. Kevin Harvick
He's struggled in this, his final season at Richard Childress Racing before he moves to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. Harvick joked before the Daytona 500 about being a lame duck driver -- and how often in NASCAR that typically spells troubles for that season -- but now there's nothing funny about the performance of the No. 29 team. Harvick has led only one lap this season, has only one top-10 finish (at Las Vegas), and is currently 11th in the standings.
But if he is going to win a race in 2013, it could very well be at Richmond, one of his best tracks on the schedule. He won there in 2011 and he has more career top 10s there (15) than at any other track.
It says here he'll be fast under the lights, but won't have the speed to catch the Gibbs duo of Kenseth and Busch, who I think will wind up one-two when the checkered flag waves.