A week after coming up short in the Daytona 500, Matt Kenneth was disappointed again on Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Only this time, it came in an entirely different but never the less frustrating form.
Kenseth, who led the Daytona 500 going into Turn 4 on the last lap but finished 14th after being passed by teammate Denny Hamlin, had one of the fastest cars in Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 before his race quickly came unraveled on Lap 117 of 330 with a penalty for a violation on pit road.
After pitting for tires and fuel, Kenseth was ordered by NASCAR to serve a stop-and-go penalty because his gasman placed a wedge-adjustment wrench on the trunk of the No. 20 Toyota while it was being fueled.
“They may have come out with something that we weren’t aware of,” team owner Joe Gibbs said of NASCAR’s explanation for the penalty. “We’re pretty sharp on that stuff.”
Under NASCAR rules, the gasman cannot do anything other than fuel the car when the gas can is engaged. So when the gasman laid the wrench on Kenseth’s car, the team broke the rules.
“We didn’t adjust anything,” Gibbs said. “We just had the jackwrench and we sat it on the decklid and they said you can’t, so that’s what they said.”
While Kenseth’s crew chief, Jason Ratcliff, was pleading the team’s case to officials, NASCAR waved the black flag at Kenseth and NASCAR momentarily stopped scoring him. The 2003 Sprint Cup champion ultimately was penalized one lap for the pit infraction and another for ignoring the black flag.
“It was just a lack of communication,” Kenseth said. “It’s hard to blame it on anybody. You can’t really see the flagstand in the sun, and I was riding around first, second and third and I had no idea we had any problems on pit road or there was a penalty. So I guess they were black-flagging us and I didn’t know it. The spotter never said anything and Jason didn’t tell me, so I didn’t know anything about it. They said, ‘Do a pass-through,’ and they told me I was two laps down. So I don’t really know what happened out here, to be honest with you.”
“You typically never have that stuff happen when you’re running last so that’s kind of the way it goes, the way it’s been going lately. The last few months we’ve had a lot of disappointments,” Kenseth said. “We’ll just keep digging. The encouraging part is the car was really fast… the best I’ve probably ever had at Atlanta, and we were in the mix to go for a win early in the race.
“You never know what’s going to happen in the second half. There’s a lot of racing to do, but we were definitely in the mix.”
Prior to the penalty, Kenseth had led three times for a total of 47 laps out front. Once the smoke cleared from the two infractions, he returned to the track running outside the top 30. And he never recovered.
“It’s frustrating for us,” Gibbs said. “I hate it. And then Matt didn’t see the black flag, so that cost us, too, and we didn’t tell him like we should have, probably.”
Over the Radio Kenseth said, “I’m gonna blow a gasket if we got black-flagged and you didn’t tell me to pit.”
Ratcliff replied, “I can’t see the black-and-white flag when I’m out of the pit box arguing the case.”
“I couldn’t see the flag stand,” Kenseth said as the team rehashed the situation during a caution period on Lap 210. He told fill-in spotter Curtis Markham, “If we ever get in that situation again, you gotta, gotta, gotta tell me. …. I would’ve pitted before the cross. I can’t help it if I don’t have any information.”
Ratcliff remained adamant that the team shouldn’t have been penalized for the fueler taking a tool to and from the car, saying, “We’ve always done that. We’ve been doing that forever. But suddenly today it’s a penalty.”