The Frontstretch: The Eyeball Effect Overturned: Middlebrook's Move Saves Ugly Precedent by Amy Henderson -- Wednesday March 21, 2012

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The Eyeball Effect Overturned: Middlebrook's Move Saves Ugly Precedent

Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Wednesday March 21, 2012



The decision of Chief Appellate Officer John Middlebrook created a ripple in the NASCAR community, creating every reaction from elation to outrage as word got out that Middlebrook had chosen to overturn nearly all of the penalties NASCAR had handed the No. 48 team of Hendrick Motorsports on Tuesday. The original consequences, stemming from a questionable C-pillar on the Daytona 500 car for five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson had been six-week suspensions for No. 48 crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec, 25-point deductions for Johnson and car owner Jeff Gordon, and a fine of $100,000 for Knaus.

After all was said and done, Middlebrook ruled that NASCAR had been too heavy-handed in the decision to penalize the team, and overturned all but the monetary fine, placing Knaus and Malec on probation through May 9. Both will be with the No. 48 at Auto Club Speedway this weekend and beyond, while Johnson jumps from 17th in driver points to 11th. The outcome was almost the best possible for the team and its fans, but it has left others in a state anywhere from scratching their heads to irate that “Cheater Chad” was getting away with something yet again. Those people will say that Middlebrook and Hendrick are longtime friends and that’s why the appeal was upheld, that the team got away with something shady, that Johnson raced an illegal car.

Think the penalty reduction was just about these guys? Think again, because it affects every team and race fan in the grand scheme of things, according to Amy Henderson.

Just hold on.

First of all, none of that is true. While Middlebrook and Hendrick do have a previous relationship, this instance isn’t the first time Middlebrook has reduced a penalty. In fact, he’s now heard four appeals and reduced the penalty every time. So while there may be a debate about whether Middlebrook has a bias against NASCAR’s rules, there isn’t one about favoring one team over another in the process. Did the team get away with anything? No. They had to fix the car before it was allowed on the racetrack, so the car that Johnson raced in the Daytona 500 (for a whopping two laps before falling victim to a wreck) was a legal racecar. It was inspected at least twice more after the initial inspection and passed.

What Middlebrook’s decision did was to bring the penalty almost in line with a July 2011 incident in which the No. 18 did not pass prerace inspection due to a C-pillar issue and was forced to make repairs before having the car reinspected and continuing with their weekend without further penalty. The $100,000 fine still upped the ante this time around, but it’s much closer to what was done for the same infraction previously. And while some will argue Knaus’ previous record, the fact is that the No. 18 has been penalized more often in the past five years than the No. 48, so that argument holds no water.

But the real issue here isn’t whether Knaus and his team pulled a fast one on NASCAR and the competition; it’s about how NASCAR polices the sport. It’s not about the number on the side of the car that brought the appeal or about any one race team in the garage. It’s about so much more. In the big picture, Middlebrook’s decision is a good one for every single team that brings a car to the racetrack.

Why? Mainly, it sends a message that “It didn’t look right” is not a valid reason for slapping a race team with a hefty penalty. There is simply too much at stake for the sport’s sanctioning body to take such a lax approach to the inspection process. There are so many factors that can potentially affect a sight line: light and shadow, the angle of a decal, the color or shine factor of paint, the viewing angle. Simply eyeballing a car that has been prepared to fit tolerances within fractions of fractions of inches just doesn’t cut it.

While the No. 48 incident happened in the season opener, imagine this scenario: heading into Phoenix in November with two teams locked in a championship battle, rolling into opening inspection at the penultimate race of the year, an inspector decides something “doesn’t look right” on one of the cars and refuses to put the template on. That team is then docked enough points that it’s all but guaranteed that the championship is out of its grasp, even if the team is able to fix it and race. Imagine if that organization is one that has never received a major penalty before. Imagine that there was, in fact, no infraction, and that would have been proven in a complete inspection. Not only is NASCAR taking away a potential championship with no actual proof of any rules violation, they’re denying race fans the chance to see the championship play out, all because of an issue that may or may not have even been real. Can you say PR nightmare?

Had the penalty been upheld, that would have become a very realistic scenario. Hopefully, Middlebrook’s ruling will force NASCAR to step back and realize that they must be consistent with the inspection process before they consider if a team is not playing by the rules.

Furthermore, it sends the message that arbitrary punishments among different teams for the same infraction are not kosher. It’s one thing to step up the punishment if teams don’t get the memo, but quite another to go from no penalty at all (the right call for the No. 18 at Indy) to a debilitating points deduction and suspensions all at once. Bumping it up from no penalty to a hefty fine and probation sends the message loud and clear that if teams continue to work in the same area of the car they are asking for trouble. Whether teams should ever be penalized for something found in opening technical inspection is very debatable, but at least you’re keeping points out of the picture. And if a third team should choose to risk massaging the C-pillar and gets the next step on the ladder? Well, perhaps they should have known better.

Whether or not the fact that the car never raced with a questionable part or measurement was part of this verdict, again, perhaps the decision itself will force NASCAR’s hand in looking at how they penalize. Taking points when none were earned is simply ridiculous. Fines and suspensions are never warranted for a car that never earned one single illegal point – that’s one thing – because if the car that earned the points was legal in the end, there is no reason for NASCAR to take them. (If the car is found to be outside of tolerance after a points-paying event, that’s a whole other matter.).

All things considered, even if the No. 48 had gotten away with something at Daytona (and they didn’t, because the car in question never got on track until it was fixed to NASCAR’s satisfaction), Middlebrook’s ruling to drastically reduce the penalty is one that all race teams and fans should be happy about. Why? It kept NASCAR from setting a precedent that would be truly detrimental to stock car racing – far more detrimental to the sport as a whole, in fact than a single car managing to get away with a minor rules infraction. Suddenly, an inspector’s eyeballs would be good enough to change the entire direction of a sport. Is that what you want?

Sometimes, it’s more important to look at the big picture than at instant gratification. While crucifying one team may have given that to some, in the larger scheme of things, it could have set a precedent with ominous and sweeping implications for everybody in the future. That’s the picture that needs to be in focus here. It’s not about one team and what they might maybe have done or not done. It’s about an entire sport and how that sport is policed. The message John Middlebrook sent to NASCAR was loud and clear: the policing of the sport needs to be consistent, and it needs to be based on a compelling (not simply eyeballed) evidence of wrongdoing. Now it’s up to NASCAR to heed that message for the good of all.

Editor’s Note: Looking for the other side to this story? Check out Matt McLaughlin’s column here which claims this decision was the wrong move. And most importantly, let us know what you think!

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MJR in Springfield, VA
03/21/2012 07:41 AM

Well this sparks an interesting scenario. What if (and of course this could never happen) going into the final race at Homestead, all 12 “Chase” drivers are within 40 points of each other. And during pre-race inspection the top 11 teams are found to be in such gross violation of the rule book that all 11 are slapped with a 50 point penalty. Forget about the money for this one – it would only confuse things. How does NA$CAR go about running the race?

- Do we wait for the appeals to be heard – keep in mind that this Johnson/Hendricks C-post issue took more than a month to resolve? – Does NA$CAR postpone the race for 30 days? – Do they run it and see what happens? – Do they just hand the championship to the 12th driver/team that had no penalty?

Wow – something to think about…..ok my nap time is over, time to stop dreaming.

03/21/2012 07:50 AM

Good call on this one.

In your what-if scenario, can you imagine the outrage if that penalized car was Jr’s? Oh, wait, NASCAR would be afraid to make that kind of call on him vs. the ones the haters love to hate like Johnson or the Busch’s.

03/21/2012 10:43 AM

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03/21/2012 11:59 AM

Bowyer gets blown out of the water for an infraction while Hendricks and Middlebrook dance away merrily hand in hand. We know who runs the sport and it sure as hell isn’t nascar.

03/21/2012 12:02 PM

Well said Amy!

03/21/2012 12:22 PM

You hit the nail on the head with this one!

03/21/2012 12:28 PM

lucky 35 rule,chase and now this crap shoot no wonder Fans are leaving in droves !!

03/21/2012 01:10 PM

A gentleman high up in the NASCAR rules making foodchain once told me that if the lawyers didn’t have to approve everything in the various NASCAR rule books, things would go much better. NASCAR’s rule books have always been reactive in their writing instead of making a proactive, clear black & white rule and standing by it.

Bill W
03/21/2012 01:21 PM

The real issue here for me was that the penalties, fines, etc. were all issued on a car that was never put through Tech inspection.

Had the car been put through the templates and tech process and failed then by all means, suspensions, penalties, fines, etc all stand. Bowyer failed tech, not an unofficial casual inspection.

For a car that “didn’t look right” and was repaired prior to any tech inspection then fines are the way to go.

I think the correct penalty for this situation is correct

03/21/2012 02:08 PM

If this were Toyota and Kyle Busch nascar and Amy would feel differently.

I literally laughed out loud when I heard that Chad and Hendrick got away with cheating again, but I laughed even harder when I saw Amy wrote yet another “I love those Hendrick boys” article.

$1 says the 48 wins the always exciting Fontana race this Sunday where he’ll get to speak of how happy he is of Nascar’s decision.

Can we just crown him this years champion already and get on with it.?

Meanwhile the rest of us are still wondering “when will true justice be done?”

03/21/2012 02:36 PM

You can not eye ball a car that never hit the track or even made it to inspection & just make a call on it because it looks funny…Chad is an idiot for his in car comments…On your pole here you can see 52% are just die hard 48 fans (just like no journalism amy) All Emotion & no facts…I Fully believe they tried to fool Nascar but Nascar did not use the process’s they have & that makes it a waste of time (foolish folks) ..Now why don’t they get a laser light system set up for inspection that would have caught this & no Im not a fan of the 48 but this was improper for Nascar to do half a job & then make the example…Hendricks to Chad “you may be the finest crew chief ..but next time Shut Up!”

03/21/2012 03:32 PM


Its amazing how quick you were to praise nascar for parking Rowdy in Texas, because of his history of “rough” drivering. But do not want to admit or see Knaus/Hendrick punished for thier history of “cheating”

I find it odd that RCR /Bowyer got thier money back put still lost 150 points, for an infraction that could have happened on the track (Bowyer’s car pasted prerace inspection). While Hendrick/Knaus Lose pocket change but get points back after bring car to track that FAILED prerace inspection.

Knaus/Johnson history of “cheating” No points, no suspension, $100,000

Wilson/Bowyer no history of “cheating”
150 points, 4 wks suspension (During chase),no money.

Less not forget Carl Long who was run out of nascar ($200,000 Fine) for on engine that was 1/6” to big, in the All star quailifing race.

If I owned a race team I would want Knaus on the box, he is not afraid to work in the “gray” area’a the other crew chief can not seem to find. And when he gets outside the “gray” nascar only slaps his wrist.

03/21/2012 03:48 PM

Hey all, thanks for stopping by and reading.

Pete, I clearly stated that NASCAR made absolutely the correct call by not penalizing the No. 18 for the exact same infraction at Indy, so I’m not sure why you think I should feel differently about the 48. Both teams should have been treated the same to begin with.

WCFan, a couple of things you didn’t mention that have bearing. One, Bowyer’s car was found illegal after a race, meaning it actually competed that way. Had his team been able to prove that a broken part had caused the infraction, it’s very likely that the penalty would ahve been overturend on appeal, as that has happened before when the team had proof. IMO, taking points that were earned illegally is far different than taking points that were earned with a legal car because that car was corrected before it ever got on track.

Second, if you look at the past five years, several crew chiefs have more infractions than Knaus and several teams have more violations than the No. 48. I put the stats out there in a column for all to see. Funny how lots of people ignore those facts.

IMO, what Kyle Busch did at Texas isn’t comparable to this incident. He willingly and calculatingly put the life of a competitor in danger. NASCAR said it wasn’t because of prior issues with Busch, it was because of that single incident. If Jimmie Johnson or any other driver made the same move, they would, IMO have deserved the same punishment, but comparing it to a prerace inspection (where at least 3 other cars also had questionable C-pillars but were allowed to fix them and nearly half the cars presented with some issue that NASCAR made them address)is apples to oranges. The only valid comparison is that there was a racecar involved.

I was talking to a friend yesterday who thought that the penalty shouldn’t have been overturned, and I asked this: Would you still be out for blood if this scenario had occurred at Homestead with the No. 14 or 99? Or would you be outraged that NASCAR levied a penalty without properly inspecting a car? That’s the real issue here, not whether or not the 48 had a funny C-pillar.

Kevin in SoCal
03/21/2012 04:24 PM

Sometimes I think NASCAR fans on this website are more concerned with punishing Johnson and/or Busch for every little thing, than they are with being fair to all.

03/21/2012 04:30 PM

Amy, yeah they caught them before he raced it at Daytona but what about the 5 races he used it before he got caught? Upheld penalty? more like slap on wrist.

03/21/2012 04:42 PM

If you reread my post you will see I said the car past prerace inspection.
The 1/16” could have happened during the race or after when Bowyer car was pushed to Victory Lane.
While Jimmy’s car was brought to track this way.

Richard swore just like Rick that his team would not bring on illegal car to track. Are you saying Rick’s word is more truthfull then Richard’s.

Please name the many crew chief’s that have more infractions then Knaus. I am not talking about minor prerace infractions,too high,too low. All most every week there are team’s having to fix minor discrepancies. these are not the same as flared fenders, slow rebound shocks and others violations that Chad as done. Amy there are times that you to seem to ignore the facts.

I will admit that I do not like Rick Hendrick and believe he gets Special treatment by nascar and can give examples of such. Carl Long engine 1/6” to large $200,000 fine, Jeff Gordan’s T-Rex do not bring back to track(if this car was legal why could he not race it again?)

I know this is past news, but I believe Carl Edwards put Brad’s live at risk twice and was not parked.

03/21/2012 05:02 PM

WCFan…You are right about the Bowyer car in that it COULD have happened during the race…but unfortunately, the team couldn’t prove that it did. The burden of proof here is on the accused. Knaus, in fact, had a penalty for a very similar infraction changed on appeal because the team was able to prove a part failure.

Again, I outlined exactly who has more infractions since 2007 in a recent column. I don’t remember all of them off the top of my head. I believe Frank Kerr was the worst offender, along with Rodney Childers. Among teams, the 7 has the most, but several others, including the 18, had more than the 48. If you’re using the Bowyer penalty as a comparison, than those “minor prerace infractions” must be included as they are no further off than Bowyer’s car was. These are the facts, I’m not ignoring any of them. To me, the same infraction warrants the same response form NASCAR, not a different one for each team. (And speaking of facts, just to clarify, the slow rebound shocks were also used on the No. 5 of Kyle Busch that week and were NOT deemed illegal because there was no existing rule against them. They were 100% legal at the time they were used by both Johnson and Busch. Same deal with T-Rex. NASCAR changed the rule afterward in both cases.) But again, the point of my column wasn’t to vindicate the 48, it was to point out how bad it would be for the sport if teams could be penalized whenever, where ever for a car that was never even inspected. That sets a very dangerous precedent. It’s not about one team, it’s about what’s right for the entire sport. “It didn’t look right” isn’t good for the sport.

FWIW, I think Edwards also should have been parked for his retaliatory actions.

03/21/2012 05:19 PM

I do not have the time to research all the slaps on the wrist nascar have given to Chad and Hendrick compared to other drivers/crew chiefs/teams. I wish I did.

When you wear 48 colored glasses it’s easy to say everyone is a “JJ hater”.

I wish the late, great David Poole were still with us to research and write a book on this subject.

I’m also waiting for former Hendrick employees and Nascar imspectors to step up and talk. But it would be hard to fight against all the Hendrick/Nascar money that would be going against you.

Hopefully, one day, the light will shine bright and save this once great but slow dying sport.

03/21/2012 06:17 PM

That is part of my point, it seems like Hendrick/(Knaus) always seem to find the “gray area’s while the other teams are outside the “gray area.

My dislike of Rick Hendrick and the perferentail treatment his teams receive is the reason I would have liked to have seen these punishments upheld.
But at the same time with the chase and points resit this would have been nothing but a slap on the wrist for a team of this caliber. It would have allowed nascar to say look we hold Hendrick/Knaus to the same standards as all other teams

Amy, while I disagree with you more times then not I like your passion and debating different points of view.

03/21/2012 07:30 PM

Completely agree. “ doesn’t look right” is completely arbitrary and absurd. If you can’t measure it, you can’t complain about it.

old farmer
03/22/2012 01:39 AM

Rick & Chad win again—wonder how much it cost them under the table?

I’m sick of JJ, RH, CK—that’s all we ever hear about, it seems. End the lovefest, Amy, & do some unbiased reporting. Nascar is NOT all about the Hendrick operation; at least it’s not supposed to be.


Contact Amy Henderson

Recent articles from Amy Henderson:

Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Announces Partnership with Cessna, Textron
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Want to know more about Amy or see an archive of all of her articles? Check out her bio page for more information.