At some point, one can only take so much. It is a theme that can be used in racing, and in life. Push hard enough, someone will push back.
But at what expense?
It seems we saw that expense on Sunday, as Matt Kenseth was pushed to his breaking point, and ended up breaking parts, metal, and Chase hopes. At the same time, the parts that were broken weren’t just his, but another competitor. It cost Joey Logano a strong finish, and he is now where Kenseth was one round ago.
Everyone knew it was coming. Things between Kenseth and Penske Racing as a whole have been coming to a head ever since last season.
We saw it at Charlotte, when he went after Brad Keselowski between the haulers, putting him in a headlock.
At the time, that was never expected from Kenseth. He’s one of the most collected, calm, and personable individuals in the garage. As a former champion, that’s expected, and he’s gained respect from everyone he competes against. Yet at that moment on Sunday, Kenseth had a choice to make. It was either let him go by, maybe rub him up a bit so the competition can catch him, let him pass without incident (something everyone likely knew was not going to happen), or option C, which is what was the end result.
Now, Kenseth has to live with that choice. He now also has to understand his image, reputation, and how he will be raced has changed immensely.
Let’s be honest, Kenseth was pushed to his breaking point. Would he have done the same thing if he wasn’t 10 laps down and instead was running seccond? We don’t know, he might have just rammed him to get him out of the way and went on. But the catalyst in this happened before that, when he was involved in the accident that also had Keselowski and Kurt Busch sustain heavy damage. He already had issues with one Penske driver, and at that moment he had another.
Kenseth reached his limit, and everyone has that moment where he or she can take no more, and they react.
The problem in this situation is not that there was retaliation, but instead who it came from. Despite the cheers from the crowd at Martinsville, many other individuals in the sport look at the move and think the exact opposite. Logano called it a “chicken-you-know-what move” and others decided not to sugar coat it like that. Kenseth has never been the one to push someone into the wall, much less rough them up to make a pass.
Now he’s got to deal with a big image issue, and now his team has to deal with possible strong consequences.
At the time, he wasn’t thinking about the aftermath; it was all about that moment.
It’s been over 24 hours since Martinsville saw their own version of a demolition derby, and it’s still being talked about, only because of who was involved.
The issues between Logano and Kenseth have a near similar theme to when Kurt Busch was having his issues with Jimmy Spencer back in 2002 and 2003. Those two had multiple run-ins, a few big wrecks, and it built up to a head where someone was going to react big. The difference between that incident and this one, Spencer took care of the incident in his own way, without tearing up the equipment of his team. There was no extra work at the shop to put in a new motor, safety gear, and an entire new front clip, not to mention the sheet metal.
Spencer handled it with a swift right hand. It cost him a race, one in which Busch went on to win, but that was the final straw between those two. No other incidents came afterward.
Both Logano and Kenseth have more years ahead of them behind the wheel, meaning each Sunday there is a possibility the two will get close to one another, and an incident could come of it. What needs to be addressed is how these two will now race each other these final few races, along with races in the future. At the same time, Logano has a bigger picture to worry about. He now is where Kenseth was, and needs to win in order to keep his title hopes alive for this season.
On the other end, Kenseth has nothing left to do except win races. What he needs to not do is make it so Logano, and Keselowski since he has history there too, don’t have that opportunity, at his expense.
If he lets this continue, his image will quickly go from being a well-respected, former champion, to a bitter driver that is more concerned about someone else than their own chances of winning.
So now what does NASCAR do at this point?
The “Boys Have At It” mentality has been seen often, and in some cases the sanctioning body decided to not penalize drivers, while in other cases they decide to put their foot down. Last year, the incident between Keselowski and yesterday’s winner, Jeff Gordon, was handled in a way where the teams got punished and not the drivers. While some evidence seemed to show a punch thrown, NASCAR couldn’t say it was a driver or a crew member.
Instead, they had no issue with the incident on-track, but the incident on pit road was another matter.
Yet at the same time, the incidents involving Keselowski, Kenseth and Denny Hamlin at Charlotte, where the cars soon became chase vehicles one would use in “Grand Theft Auto” game series, putting many other innocent people in harms way. Yet there was a slight punishment for that incident, even after all the video evidence showed reckless driving
What is the line that cannot be crossed in NASCAR’s eyes?
The biggest issue that is as clear as day is the fact that the incident was intentional. It was deliberate, direct, and had premeditation. What hurts Kenseth is that he didn’t say he made the move deliberately, but rather made a claim about his car. That will hurt as NASCAR can look at data, transmissions between crew and driver, plus use the in-car cameras that Kenseth had installed by NBC to show what he was doing at the time of the wreck.
Every fan that began to cheer their lungs out knew it was intended to be payback, but Kenseth in his wisdom decided to try and make a claim. All that does is make him look more guilty.
If he came out and said “Yeah, I wrecked him intentionally,” maybe then NASCAR could give out the punishment Sunday night instead of having to go through this process. They did the same thing when Kyle Busch wrecked Ron Hornaday in a truck race a few years back, as they parked him that night, and then the entire weekend. Same can be said of Kevin Harvick back in 2002, ironically at this same track.
So NASCAR has to decide what is the best solution in this matter, and the unfortunate part is that one side will be happy, while the other side will disagree with the call, and there will be many that will have the “should be more” or “should be less” argument.
What matters here is that one driver is not admitting guilt, even though all the evidence shows his intent.
NASCAR needs to do something to set an example, and set an example for all the drivers, crews, and even media, fans, and their family members, that some things will not be tolerated.
Unfortunately for Kenseth, the damage he did has already been handed down, as how he is viewed from the outside has changed for the remainder of the season, and maybe through the rest of his career.
Was it worth it, Matt? Was it truly worth it?
Now Kenseth can really ask himself “was it worth it” because he will have a lot of time to contemplate it.
As announced on Tuesday, NASCAR has suspended Kenseth for the next two Sprint Cup races, Texas and Phoenix, and has been given a probation period of six months. His probation will last through the first three months of the 2016 season.
Joe Gibbs Racing is planning to appeal the punishment, specifically the length of the suspension.
No substitute driver has been announced for the No. 20 for the next two races.