Matt Kenseth was running up front for most of the day Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He even sat in the lead a few times. His day did not end as he had hoped, as he finished the race in 23rd position, thanks to a late race pit road penalty, that mixed with some confusion among his team, left him two laps down, a position that is almost impossible to recover from.
What happened before the penalty?
Kenseth made a routine green flag pit stop on Lap 170 that consisted of four tires, and refilling his car with gas. It is one of the most common pit stops, something that even though it is routine, teams still practice it hundreds of times a season.
On this particular stop, however, the gas man for Kenseth was carrying a wrench that had been used to make adjustments on the car. While he had the gas can engaged with the car, he set the wrench down on the back of the car.
That move was a violation of NASCAR rules, which state "The Fueler must be in control of the fuel can at all times when fuel is being added to the vehicle. The Fueler will not be permitted to perform any adjustments or other pit stop procedures while the fuel can coupler is engaged with the vehicle-mounted adapter."
In simple terms, when the gas can is in the car, the person holding it must focus all his attention on the gas can, he is unable to do anything else as long as the can is in the car. Once he removes the can, he is free to work on the car, he just can't do it while the gas can is in the car.
Miscommunication leads to a black flag
After the penalty was announced, Kenseth's crew chief, Jason Ratcliffe, took his headset off and argued the penalty with NASCAR officials. He removed his headset before telling Kenseth that he was being penalized, which left Kenseth with no way to know he had to come down pit road to serve his penalty. After a few laps, NASCAR had no choice but to black flag him, meaning they stopped scoring his car, and it was like he wasn't even on the track.
Kenseth did eventually make it down pit road, but by the time everything was sorted out, he had lost two laps, and was virtually out of the running for the win.
During a later caution period, Kenseth commented to his team "I couldn't see the flag stand. If we ever get in that situation again, you gotta gotta gotta tell me. I woulda pitted before the cross. I can't help it if I don't have any information."
Ratcliffe responded to that by saying "I can't see the black-and-white flag when I'm out of the pit box arguing the case."
Was this the right call?
It isn't hard to see why NASCAR has this rule. It is there to prevent the gas man from doing too many things at once, and risk spilling fuel on either himself, the pit box, or both. The question is, did the gas man make any adjustments on the car, or did he simply set the wrench down.
Based on video shown during the television broadcast, it appears that the crew member did not actually make an adjustment with the wrench while the gas can was in the car. It appears that he just set it down to free up a hand.
However, that is not what NASCAR determined, and they are the only ones who can make the call. No amount of arguing is going to change the call, as Ratcliffe discovered during the race.
It was a seemingly innocent mistake that when mixed with a lack of communication, ended up costing Kenseth a shot at the win. He will look for better luck next weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.