The fate of the No. 48 team was decided during Tuesday’s final hearing (March 18) in front of NASCAR’s Chief Appellate Officer, John Middlebrook. Following an alleged rules violation involving an aerodynamic alteration to the C-posts of the car prior to the season-opening Daytona 500, Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus faced stiff punishment: a 25-point penalty, both in the driver and owner standings, along with six-week suspensions for Knaus and car chief Ron Malec.
Hendrick Motorsports was also hit with a $100,000 fine, leaving this final appeal one last desperation heave to salvage the team’s early season woes.
Middlebrook met with both parties in a joint meeting before reaching the decision to uphold only one of the original punishments: the $100,000 fine. Knaus and Malec saw their suspensions eliminated, placed only on probation until May 9 while all points penalties are revoked. Middlebrook’s decision, which is final came without specifics as to how he came to a decision – only the verdict itself.
The changes caused a lightning-quick debate across NASCAR Nation; it’s the first time we’ve seen a penalty overturned to this degree since Robby Gordon‘s 100-point penalty for a faulty bumper cover was eliminated in March 2008. In that case, the fine was also kept, even increased from $100,000 to $150,000.
Despite a reduction in severity, Hendrick Motorsports still displayed a mixed reaction over the decision. In particular, Knaus was confused by an outcome in which his team was not completely exonerated.
“I felt like they made a mistake … with the information that was put out there, it was determined that they had,” said Chad Knaus to several reporters, posted in an article by Bob Pockrass. “Obviously we’re not happy with the fine – that’s an awful lot of money for something that was obviously proved to be OK.”
Others were confused as to how the team could see its penalties mostly, but not completely reduced. Did that mean the C-posts were still illegal?
“What I don’t understand is why John kept the $100,000 fine in place,” said SPEED’s Larry McReynolds in a press release. “If the rule infraction was so small that he felt comfortable in rescinding the points and the suspensions, what justifies there still being a $100,000 fine? If there wasn’t a rule infraction, throw the whole thing out.”
NASCAR’s highest-ranking arbitrator is no stranger to overhearing potential penalties and altering them. According to another article by Pockrass, Middlebrook is now 4-for-4 in reducing the punishments for teams involved in final hearings. Others claim his ties to others in the garage area create bias in his rulings. But team owner Rick Hendrick says the former GM exec is a fair arbitrator who makes decisions based on facts.
“I’ve known John for probably 20 years,” said Hendrick in a 2010 interview with Pockrass. “There’s just no agenda with him … he’s beyond being swayed. John will base decisions on the facts and what he thinks is the right thing – not outside pressure.”
The verdict means that Knaus will be on top of the Lowe’s pit box at Fontana and going forward, meaning he never skipped a beat as head wrench; a second appeal left him with the right to take charge at Bristol. With the initial 25-point penalty restored, Johnson moves up to 11th in the standings, only 36 points behind leader Greg Biffle.
The less severe punishment could be a result of problems with the inspection process itself, because Hendrick and Knaus believe that the No. 48 team wasn’t given the same treatment as others when they presented the car to NASCAR officials for examination.
According to an article by NASCAR.com writer Joe Menzer, Hendrick argued that other teams had similar problems with their C-posts during the same assessment, but officials allowed them to go back to the garage and make adjustments while Johnson’s car wasn’t given that opportunity. Unconfirmed reports had Kyle Busch‘s No. 18 as one of those cars.
“It was a small breakdown in the system,” claimed Knaus. “After what we’ve done today, some of that is going to get cleared up and make it better and easier for everybody.”
The same No. 48 car was supposedly used for Johnson’s win at Talladega in April 2011 and passed inspection at the track afterwards as well as in the fall race, then the NASCAR R&D Center in January. Hendrick insists that the No. 48 wasn’t tampered with during that time frame or at any other point afterwards.
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