Darlington notebook: Kenseth happy for reprieve

pobley@thestate.comMay 10, 2013 

— The biggest mover this week vaulted up the Sprint Cup standings without ever turning a lap.

With the surprise reduction in penalties incurred following his race at Kansas, Matt Kenseth moved from 11th to No. 4 in the Cup standings when his penalty points were reduced from 50 to 12.

Kenseth and Joe Gibbs Racing had been handed severe penalties when a light rod was discovered in his engine during the post-race inspection following his win at Kansas. Wednesday a three-member appeals panel reduced those penalties, agreeing with the argument made by JGR that the light rod was a Toyota issue, since JGR is not allowed to touch the inside of the engines.

Kenseth also had his three bonus points reinstated. Crew chief Jason Ratcliff’s suspension was reduced from six races to one, and Gibbs’ suspension was eliminated. Ratcliff still has to deal with a $200,000 fine, and Toyota saw its penalty increase from five points to seven.

“Certainly, I think these penalties are way more in line with what I initially thought that it would be,” Kenseth said Friday. “The penalties were pretty crushing before they got them reduced, so I ... really applaud NASCAR for having the appeals process.”

Essentially, the original penalties had the effect of vacating his Kansas win. No longer.

“Before they gave us the points back, I mean, man, you’re still right on the bubble,” Kenseth said. “If you have a wreck at Talladega or a broken part or something happens, you could easily be out of the Chase, so certainly it helps your chances.”

Still, the penalties will be felt, especially this weekend as Ratcliff serves is suspension. Wally Brown steps in as crew chief.

Mr. 700

Jeff Gordon has seven wins at Darlington, but he has been nowhere to be found the past couple years. His last win in 2007 is rapidly retreating in the rearview mirror.

But how fitting would it be if his first win in 2013 was victory No. 8 at Darlington in start No. 700? He currently ranks third on the track’s all-time win list behind David Pearson (10) and Dale Earnhardt (9).

“It’s amazing that the number is that big,” Jimmie Johnson said about his Hendricks Motorsports teammate. “He got such an early start, (yet) he’s not all that much older than I am.”

Gordon turns 42 in August and is in his 23rd season in Sprint Cup. Johnson, 37, recalls a time when he went to the store and bought Gordon merchandise.

Danica’s dings and dents

A year ago, all Danica Patrick wanted to do at Darlington is finish a race. Now, she wants more.

Unfortunately on Friday, she wanted too much. Patrick slammed her No. 10 Chevrolet into the wall in Turn 2 15 minutes into the first practice session.

She missed the final 25 minutes of that session and the first 15 minutes of the second practice session while her crew set up her backup car.

“Last year, we were last in and really felt uncomfortable out there,” Patrick said. “This time, I felt much more comfortable to the point that I was really hanging it out a little bit more and, you know, exploring the limits of the car, and I explored ... too far.”

Patrick said her learning curve at Darlington has to do specifically with Turn 2, where drivers run close to the wall in the hope of hitting the straight away as early and cleanly as possible to pick up speed.

“The reason for so many Darlington Stripes on cars here is, you’re really just driving against the wall,” she said. “The only way to find the limit is to sometimes get over it and, you know, I wish it would have been a Darlington Stripe instead of going to a backup, but lesson learned for tomorrow night and I’ll be better for it.”

No backup for Hamlin

Darlington will be Denny Hamlin’s first full race since March as he continues to recover from a fractured vertebra in his lower back.

He made a brief return at Talladega last week only to exit his car after 24 laps. He turned the car over to relief driver Brian Vickers. Saturday, he plans to have no driver on standby.

“It will be a challenge because this is one of the toughest, physically challenging races that we have,” Hamlin said. “Not only by distance, but the amount of mental focus that you have to have during this race is tough because obviously we know you’re running right next to the wall and the margin for error is zero.”

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