CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Looking to squash any notion that the drivers are running amok on the track, NASCAR suspended Matt Kenseth for two races Tuesday for intentionally wrecking Joey Logano in an act of retaliation that dramatically changed the lineup of drivers in the running for the championship.
The penalty levied against Kenseth is fairly unprecedented. Drivers have been suspended before for on-track actions, but typically only for one race and the policy has not been uniform.
NASCAR said it punished Kenseth because he had no chance at winning and intentionally altered the outcome of Sunday's race. NASCAR also said it factored aspects of safety in penalizing Kenseth as well as "the fact that the new Chase elimination format puts a premium on each and every race. These actions have no place in NASCAR."
NASCAR chairman Brian France earlier indicated a tough penalty was in works because the series can't allow a driver to think the way to "pay back somebody for something that happened is take matters into their own hands."
In addition, Danica Patrick was fined $50,000 and docked 25 points for intentionally wrecking David Gilliland earlier in the race.
Joe Gibbs Racing immediately said it would appeal for Kenseth, and teammate Denny Hamlin decried the severity of the penalty.
"Thought it was pretty clear from drivers' reactions after the race that Joey broke driver code. Matt made sure it was enforced. #freematt," Hamlin posted on Twitter.
Kenseth was nine laps down at Martinsville Speedway when he deliberately drove Logano into the wall. The crash was payback for Logano wrecking Kenseth three races ago in an incident that ultimately led to Kenseth's elimination from NASCAR's playoffs.
Kenseth fumed about the Kansas Speedway incident for two weeks and exacted his revenge as Logano was dominating at Martinsville. A victory would have earned Logano a spot in the Nov. 22 title-deciding finale, but he is now last in the eight-driver field with two races remaining as he tries to advance.
Logano had won three straight races before Sunday's on-track showdown with Kenseth. He had said earlier he wasn't worried about retribution, even though most of the industry believed Kenseth would not let the issue fade.
Kenseth, the 2003 NASCAR champion and a two-time Daytona 500 winner, was racing for a victory he needed to advance in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Logano chased him down even though he had already advanced to the next round. Kenseth blocked Logano several times in an effort to stave off a pass for the win, and Logano finally just moved Kenseth out of his way. The contact caused Kenseth to crash.
Logano shrugged it off as hard racing and denied deliberately wrecking the Joe Gibbs Racing driver.
Kenseth said the Team Penske driver was lying, and he had support throughout the garage after wrecking Logano on purpose.
"I ain't going to argue with what Matt did, Matt felt like he was justified with how Joey wrecked him at Kansas and then was arrogant about it afterward," said Dale Earnhardt Jr. "That was really what got under Matt's skin more than anything, about how Joey was arrogant about it. When you damn wreck a guy, admit it, you know? Don't wreck Matt Kenseth, I'll tell you that right now. Do not wreck that boy."
Kenseth's peers consider him a fair racer who follows old-school beliefs about on-track etiquette. Logano, the reigning Daytona 500 champion, has struggled with some of his fellow competitors. At just 25 years old and in his seventh full season, Logano has rankled some veterans with a perceived lack of respect to the way things have always been done.
Still, Logano has made tremendous strides since he left Joe Gibbs Racing — Kenseth took his ride — and went to drive for Roger Penske in 2013. After several run-ins in which older drivers appeared to bully Logano a bit, he matured and learned to stand up for himself.
Logano called Sunday's wreck "a complete coward move, especially for a championship race car driver and race team."
Kenseth maintained he had to do something to avoid losing respect in the garage. He also noted that Logano has been the strongest driver over the last month and still has two races remaining to recover from Martinsville.
"He's got a couple races left, he's got the best car, he might get a couple of wins here and still have a shot at it," Kenseth said.
The incident raised questions over what is acceptable given the heightened stakes of the Chase elimination format.
Kevin Harvick didn't get out of the way two weeks ago at Talladega when his engine was failing because he knew a poor finish would knock him from the Chase. But by holding his position, he caused a race-ending crash that had consequences for other drivers.
The reigning series champion was not punished by NASCAR even though several drivers said Harvick's action was deliberate. Harvick admitted he did what he had to do with his season on the line.
After Kenseth wrecked Logano on Sunday, Kenseth teammates Kyle Busch and Hamlin had pointed views on the current climate. Busch alleged there are different rules for different drivers, while Hamlin said NASCAR leadership had allowed the drivers to become the "wild, wild West."
France told Sirius XM NASCAR radio the sanctioning body will correct the current climate.
"We will have rules of the road that are clear to understand, we'll get it right," he said. "What happened on Sunday, that's not quite the way that we would have liked to see that turn out."