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CUP: NASCAR Police Department Busy

It’s getting quite crowded in the NASCAR penalty box.

The NASCAR world barely had had time to absorb the impact and meaning of twin fines to the Penske Racing teams of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano when the sanctioning body put the gavel down with full force Wednesday on Joe Gibbs Racing and driver Matt Kenseth.

So many series participants are now wearing the NASCAR scarlet letter of suspension that one needs a pit-wagon fuel-mileage computer to keep count.

Joining the list Wednesday was Kenseth crew chief Jason Ratcliff, who was suspended for seven races after NASCAR’s teardown of Kenseth’s winning engine from Sunday’s race at Kansas revealed a connecting rod that was too light. Although Ratcliff will continue to work while the Gibbs penalties are appealed, if the suspension eventually stands, he will miss key races in the heart of the season.

Team owner Joe Gibbs also was targeted. His owners license has been suspended for six races, meaning the team will not earn owners points for those events.

Both Kenseth and Gibbs were penalized 50 points, a severe punch that dropped Kenseth from eighth to 14th in points.

Additionally, Kenseth’s win at Kansas has become a win in name only. The 50 penalty points wiped out the points he scored in the race, and Ratcliff was hit with a $200,000 fine. The victory will not count toward “official” wins in tallying totals for possible Chase qualification, and the pole position Kenseth won Friday won’t count toward eligibility for the 2014 Sprint Unlimited special-event race.

In other words, he “won,” but he didn’t.

The sweeping Gibbs penalties are among the harshest in NASCAR history and, unless appeals result in changes, could have a major impact on Kenseth’s search for a second Sprint Cup championship in his first year with JGR. He can return to the points top 10 with some solid finishes over the next series of races, but the tenor of his season could be affected if the Ratcliff suspension is upheld.

Toyota Racing Development took responsibility for the engine issue Wednesday, but NASCAR’s position in such matters typically is that the team is fully responsible for parts used on its race cars.

Meanwhile, back at the other cell block … Penske Racing’s first appeal of its penalties from the Texas Motor Speedway race is scheduled to be heard next Wednesday at NASCAR’s Research and Development Center. At issue is the team’s preparation of rear-end housings for the Texas race on both the 2 and 22 cars. After the cars failed pre-race inspection, team members made changes in the minutes before the start of the race.

While the appeals process plays out, seven key Penske personnel – competition director Travis Geisler and the crew chiefs, car chiefs and lead engineers for both teams – remain under the shadow of suspension.

And Keselowski and Logano each were hit with 25-point penalties.

The bottom line is that, eight races into the season (and only 18 from the cutoff for the Chase), two of the sport’s most visible drivers – defending champion Keselowski and former champion Kenseth – have had their seasons clouded by what NASCAR clearly considers major violations.

NASCAR made it clear in the off-season that it would not tolerate teams toying with the core of the new Gen-6 car. Penske apparently crossed that line by working too liberally in the rear-end systems, and Gibbs and Toyota walked into an area traditionally policed heavily by NASCAR – the engine.

The early ramifications are most visible in the point standings. Keselowski would be in second – not third – in the point standings without the 25-point penalty, and Kenseth suddenly is on the outside looking in for a Chase spot because of the 50-point hit.

Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 31 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.