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NASCAR says Joe Gibbs Racing did not violate ‘100 percent rule’

Joe Gibbs Racing deliberately had three of its drivers run in the back during Sunday’s race to better their chances of avoiding playoff elimination.

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

NASCAR absolved Joe Gibbs Racing on Monday of violating its rule requiring teams to compete 100 percent, after the team had three of its drivers intentionally run in the back during Sunday's playoff elimination race at Talladega Superspeedway.

To enhance the chances of Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, and Matt Kenseth transferring to the third round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, JGR had the three drop toward the rear of the field for nearly the entire the 500-mile race. The trio was already close enough to transferring that avoiding a crash on the notoriously tumultuous restrictor-plate track was more important than aiming for an unnecessary victory.

Some fans criticized the strategy on social media, accusing the team of sandbagging and breaking a rule NASCAR's had in place since 2013. But NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O'Donnell said that wasn't the case during an appearance Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

"The spirit of that rule is really to prevent somebody from intentionally allowing another teammate to do something that would not be in the spirit of the rules of the race," O'Donnell said. "In this case, we look at that as a strategy decision that the team made. They executed it.

"It's obviously part of the format. It's a decision that they made during the race. But in this case, that wouldn't be something that we look at that violates that rule."

In other words, the JGR drivers' antics weren't intended to unfairly help another teammate achieve a particular feat, but rather to help their own individual playoff chances by playing it safe.

Kenseth, Edwards, and Busch all did successfully advance to the semifinal round. Also advancing was JGR's fourth driver, Denny Hamlin, who ran up front for the duration of the Hellmann's 500 and ultimately finished third.

JGR is the first team to place four drivers in the eight-driver third round since the knockout format was instituted in 2014.

"It goes against everything you ever want to do as a race car driver," Kenseth said. "You want to go try to win races. It's just kind of an unintended consequence of being the cutoff race and the way the Chase works. You can't afford to go up there and get wrecked and not have a chance to race for a championship.

"It was just kind of the cards we were dealt and we had to play them."

NASCAR created a rule three years ago mandating drivers "race 100 perfect of their ability" for the entirety of a race. The rule was a byproduct of Michael Waltrip Racing conspiring to manipulate the finishing order of the 2013 regular season to ensure one of its drivers, Martin Truex Jr., earned a Chase berth.

The sanctioning body later leveled MWR with substantial penalties, including a record fine and ejecting Truex out of the playoffs.

The semifinal Chase round begins Sunday at Martinsville Speedway.