That’s because it was truly believed by every NASCAR observer on the planet that the proposed penalties against Hendrick Motorsports’ #48 team were going to be upheld following a failed technical inspection prior to the Daytona 500. That meant that crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec were indeed going to be under suspension for six NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events and would not be on duty, business as usual, this weekend at the southern California based Auto Club Speedway.
Their presence in California this weekend stems from a stunning decision made March 20th by Chief Appellate Officer John Middlebrook who overturned the decision, made just one week prior, by the National Stock Car Racing Commission. That three member commission upheld NASCAR’s original penalties that included loss of driver and owner’s championship points, the six event suspension for Knaus and Malec, plus a $100,000 fine levied on Knaus.
The latest Chad Knaus related drama for Hendrick Motorsports stems from a February 17th technical inspection, prior to the the initial practice session for the Daytona 500, when it was discovered that the car’s C posts, sheet metal strips that connects the roof to the rear quarter panels, did not appear to be within the measurement tolerance.
Team owner Rick Hendrick immediately filed an appeal and, when the penalties were upheld by the commission panel, he then exercised his right to present his case in front of the appellate officer. From a prepared statement, Middlebrook released the following findings:
1. Rescinding the loss of 25 Sprint Cup Series championship car points for Jeff Gordon.
By the way, Gordon is officially listed as the owner of record of the Hendrick Motorsports #48 team. The decision to reinstate the owner’s points moves the #48 team from 17th to 12th in the owner’s championship standings.
2. Rescinding the loss of 25 Sprint Cup championship points for Jimmie Johnson.
This particular portion of the Middlebrook decision is huge for Johnson and his team. Between a lap two crash in the Daytona 500, combined with the loss of the 25 points from the penalty, Johnson began the 2012 championship run at the bottom of list posting negative points numbers. Three consecutive top ten finishes improved his ranking to 17th. The reinstatement of the 25 championship points moves him to 11th in the standings and once again places him in contention to make the Chase.
3. Rescinding the six Sprint Cup Series championship events suspension for the crew chief, Chad Knaus, and car chief, Ron Malec, however both will remain on NASCAR probation until May 9th.
Obviously this is also huge for Knaus and Malec. They get to remain with their team and do their jobs completely free of the distraction of potential penalties. This is a far better situation that spending the next six races monitoring the #48 team’s progress via computer while telephoning instructions to their substitute counterparts. You really didn’t think they were going to just sit home and relax did you?
4. $100,000 fine remains in place for the crew chief Chad Knaus.
If the first three Middlebrook decisions were regarded as being stunning, then this fourth edict, was, at the very least, perplexing. To many observers it seemed unusual that all of these penalties would be rescinded except this one. Perhaps it’s a warning to Knaus to refrain from the temptations of seeking some sort of competitive advantage for his race car anytime in the near future. After all, it’s not exactly his first time sitting in the NASCAR hot seat. In the past he has managed to compile nine penalties and has been suspended three times. March 20th was actually the second time hes successfully won an appeal.
So what was so different, between two appeals hearings one week apart, that led to this stunning reversal of fortune for Hendrick Motorsports? Unless somewhat makes public statements regarding the closed door hearing we may never know the true answer to that question.
However, you can’t help but wonder if a major factor was the strong defense, and the preparation behind it, presented by Rick Hendrick. All along Hendrick has contended that this was the same race car that ran all four restrictor plate races at Talladega and Daytona last year. It was the same car that won the spring race at Talladega. He also pointed out that, between initial presentations at the NASCAR garage tech center to post race inspections, this same car had been examined at least 19 times. Hendrick reportedly arrived at the final appeals hearing loaded with administrative evidence to support that claim that included 15 pages of documentation, approximately 20 photographs and three official affidavits.
Yet another aspect was the fact that the car’s questionable C posts were discovered by NASCAR officials via a visual inspection while it was parked in the tech line. The posts were removed and confiscated by officials. Hendrick had to contact their shop in Charlotte-North Carolina, order another set of C posts and have them flown to Daytona via a private plane.
The fact that the car was never rolled into the technical center was another major point in Hendrick’s defense presentation. It’s already being suggested that NASCAR officials perhaps made a tactical error at this point by not completing the full inspection procedures. Inside of the tech center officials could have used a special template device, often referred to as “the claw,” that could have been implemented to determine if the posts were indeed a violation of the rules.
So, is this controversial issue finally over? Not quite. There will be a lot of back and forth debate from the media and the fans that will last probably until next Saturday. That’s when it will likely start to fade away.
Hendrick said “it’s been a long 30 days and I’m glad it’s over.” Driver Jimmie Johnson probably put it best, in a “Twitter” message when he wrote: “I’m glad this is over, now it’s on to Cali.” This “Tweet” was responded to by a fan who wrote: “whoo hoo ! I got 25 fantasy points back.”