You’d think that having won four of the first eight NASCAR Sprint Cup races of 2013, Joe Gibbs Racing would be on a high right now.
“My excitement for tonight is at an all-time low. It just is right now,” said Matt Kenseth, JGR’s star new addition for 2013. Kenseth spoke Thursday afternoon at Richmond International Raceway, where he’s competing tonight in teammate Denny Hamlin’s Short-Track Showdown charity race.
After winning Sunday’s STP 400 at Kansas Speedway, Kenseth was on top of the world. But his engine was found to have a too-light connecting rod, which resulted in 50-point penalties for Kenseth and car owner Joe Gibbs; a six-week suspension and a $200,000 fine for crew chief Jason Ratcliff; no car owner points for the No. 20 for six weeks and no bonus points for the victory, should Kenseth make the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Those penalties, Kenseth said Thursday, are way too harsh.
“I think the penalties are grossly unfair,” Kenseth said. “I think it's borderline shameful.”
That said, Kenseth acknowledged the situation.
“I don't have any argument with NASCAR — that if it did not meet the weight it is not legal,” said Kenseth. “If the speed limit is 35 (miles per hour) on pit road and you're going 35.01 — you're speeding. I don't have any argument with that at all.”
Kenseth went on to say there was no performance advantage to having one light connecting rod.
“That was a mistake, a very bad mistake, a very dumb mistake,” Kenseth said. “Unfortunately, we are in this spot, but we are. We'll just see what happens going forward.”
Hamlin, meanwhile, has his own problems.
He’s about to miss his fourth consecutive race because of a fractured vertebra in his back, and if he can’t make it back by Darlington Raceway in two weeks, he could pull the plug on his entire season — or most of it, anyway — and go in for major back surgery.
“Obviously, if it goes past Darlington our chances are crushed even harder,” said Hamlin. “Eventually you have to have a shutdown point of not going out there and racing for nothing at a point. I think a recovery on the kind of surgery that I would like to have is about a month-and-a-half or so — I could potentially come back maybe for the tail end of the year.”
Hamlin currently sits 26th in points.
“Eventually you have to know the point at which you're looking at improbabilities of making the Chase (for the Sprint Cup) and just being smart about it,” Hamlin said Thursday.
The plan, at least right now, is for Hamlin to start at Talladega Superspeedway next week, then get out of the car for a relief driver, then return to full-time duty at Darlington, but that’s not set in stone.
Hamlin, who suffers from chronic back pain, is understandably frustrated.
“I deal with it every day,” he said. “The part that bothers me is it does affect my daily life. I can't lift the baby in or out of the crib because I can't lean over and things like that. That is stuff that does affect your daily life and, really other than my back, I am physically able to do a lot of things outside of racing, but I can't because I'm so limited on what I can do because of back issues.”
And Hamlin has had enough of it.
“I just want to get that part over with,” he said. “I'm willing to take the risk to get better and take the time off to get better, because I feel like mentally it will put me in a better place.”
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100.