The Frontstretch: A Travesty And A Tragedy: Reviewing The Johnson Appeal Decision by Matt McLaughlin -- Wednesday March 21, 2012

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A Travesty And A Tragedy: Reviewing The Johnson Appeal Decision

MPM2Nite · Matt McLaughlin · Wednesday March 21, 2012

 

JIMMIE JOHNSON APPEAL OVERTURNED: WEDNESDAY MORNING UPDATES

How confident was I that the penalties assessed against the No. 48 team for violations found in pre-race inspection at Daytona were going to be upheld? I actually wrote another column yesterday so I had something to file with the editors this week. Tuesday, I tended to errands and barely spared a glance at the Internet. I figured sometime late that afternoon I’d see a brief blurb the penalties had been upheld. That wasn’t worth sitting around waiting for on such a gorgeous, sunny and warm afternoon. So I did what I normally do on afternoons like today. I actually had my helmet in hand and was heading for the Harley when the phone rang. Anything that interferes with a chance to ride typically annoys me, but looking at my Caller ID I saw the number of a friend in North Carolina. He was working the “Stakeout” at the NASCAR R and D center Tuesday and promised to call me with any updates.

I’ll admit when he told me that the penalties against the No. 48 outfit had been by and large overturned I dropped my helmet. I asked him if he was kidding me (or words to that effect). But he was clearly as shocked as I was. The Harley was staying parked. My buddy wasn’t joking with me. The only joke was John Middlebrook’s decision.

Is there something rotten in Denmark? Matt McLaughlin certainly thinks so… and its name is John Middlebrook, who overturned Chad Knaus’ (pictured) suspension among other No. 48 team penalties Tuesday.

In case you were caught off guard, here’s the gist of Tuesday’s verdict. The $100,000 dollar fine against Chad Knaus was upheld. The 25 driver and team owner points were restored to Jimmie Johnson and car owner of record, Jeff Gordon. The six-race suspensions against Knaus and car chief Ron Malec were dismissed. Instead, both men will be on NASCAR probation until May 9th. (What’s that mean? Basically nothing. If a person on NASCAR probation is caught outside the rules again, he is then put on double probation and gets a loud scolding.)

I don’t know Mr. Middlebrook. I’ve never even laid eyes on him. I’ve been told by reliable sources that Rick Hendrick and Middlebrook have been frequent dinner companions over the years and that doesn’t surprise me. Before he owned race teams, Rick Hendrick made his fortune opening and running multiple new car dealerships, selling mostly Chevys and Hondas. With Hendrick one of the largest Chevy dealers in the Charlotte region, it isn’t surprising he’s had a few dinners with Middlebrook, a former top-level GM executive.

What is surprising is that given the level of familiarity between the two men, Middlebrook didn’t choose to recuse himself from the case. Certainly, if any judge in civil or criminal court had had dinners with a defendant or prosecutor involved in a trial, he’d have stood aside and let someone else stand in.

The verdict itself is baffling. Middlebrook let stand the $100,000 fine. While that might not be a lot of money to Hendrick, that’s two to three years’ salary for many fans. If an infraction is serious enough to earn a six-figure fine, how can it not be serious enough to warrant penalties that will actually hurt the operation of the team, the loss of team and drivers points and forcing Knaus to the sidelines for six weeks? Either the infraction was serious or it wasn’t. Trying to slice things down the middle like Tuesday’s decision did reeks of awkward compromise and cronyism. Even NASCAR officials are offering the fact the fine stood as proof that No. 48 car was illegal.

As you might guess, Rick Hendrick is basically pleased with Tuesday’s result, claiming he was confident all along that the No. 48 team and the car in question had been compliant with the rulebook. (A nice way of saying, hey we slipped one through on a rule that hadn’t been added yet.) He professed to be shocked by last Tuesday’s decision by a three-member panel to uphold the penalties. Then he added an offhand comment that set my blood pressure through the roof. He noted, “I would have liked to have the fine gone, too.”

Chad Knaus and Rick Hendrick were certainly in a celebratory mood after Tuesday’s surprise appeal verdict.

No … really? It reminds me of an old joke. A grandmother is walking her grandson down the beach when a rogue wave sweeps to shore and carries the lad out to sea. Unable to swim, she drops to her knees and begins to pray, “Oh, God, please don’t let my grandson drown. If you restore him to me, I’ll be the person I know you want me to be, I’ll confess my sins, and I’ll give one tenth of all I own to charity.” Another wave sweeps the boy back to shore and he’s fine. The grandmother looks up angrily towards Heaven and hollers, “Hey, he was wearing a hat!” For most of us, a $100,000 windfall would be a game changer but to Hendrick, it’s pocket change.

If Tuesday’s decision was just, where does that leave the NASCAR organization? NASCAR paid and trained inspectors identified the suspect C-pillars and flagged them as an infraction. Those aren’t the fellows that decided on the penalties to be issued. That decision moved way up the food chain to the top echelons of the sport’s hierarchy. The top brass had plenty of time to inspect those parts themselves and listen to the inspectors’ concerns. After long deliberation, they decided on penalties I felt were too mild but understandable. Then a three-referee panel of men that NASCAR appointed as experts listened to the evidence (for almost six hours) and came to a unanimous decision: the parts in question were illegal and the penalties were appropriate.

So we’re left with two possible conclusions. Either justice wasn’t served on Tuesday or all those NASCAR inspectors, officials of the highest rank and the referees they’ve appointed are all incompetent and should be immediately replaced by more savvy individuals. I mean seriously, the most damning charge thrown at the No. 48 team was “If in the judgment of NASCAR Officials, any part or component of the car not previously approved by NASCAR that has been installed or modified to enhance aerodynamic performance, will not be permitted.” So if NASCAR officials used their “judgment” (this one isn’t a litmus test, it is or it isn’t), and the C-pillars were obviously intended to “enhance aerodynamic performance” then how can you say the penalty wasn’t appropriate? The key word here is “judgment” not “measurement.”

Hendrick’s case hinged on the “not previously approved” part of the sentence. He said that that same car had passed inspection multiple times last year which is a nice way of saying, “We made you look like idiots last year and you’re going to look even dumber when this mess gets sorted out.”

Yeah, NASCAR is looking pretty stupid right now. They really didn’t need this. They’re quite good at making themselves look stupid on their own. If there is at least an appearance of conflict of interest, given Middlebrook’s personal relationship with Hendrick NASCAR didn’t do themselves any favors in that regard either. After all Lowe’s, the sponsor of the No. 48 team, is the Official Home Improvement Center of NASCAR, a title they write some big checks for to boast. In modern society, appearances are, by and large, reality and when it comes to the sniff test this one could knock a buzzard off a sh!t-wagon. NASCAR should have no official partners that are also sponsors of race teams to remove even the appearance of impropriety. (And in this economy, they should be courting sponsors that back race teams, not ones to become the Official Whatever or What-not of NASCAR.)

The outcome today might have been preordained. The atmosphere at the R and D center is said to have been notably more subdued today than the quasi-carnival of last week. Two Frontstretch readers told me after feeling like they missed out on all the fun last week they decided to attend the parking lot “happening” this time. One had the day off anyway and the other took the day off. Both were turned away from the R and D center for lack of a NASCAR hard card. (An annual credential.) It was as if those in charge knew something unsavory was about to occur and the less witnesses around to see it, the better. You’d think if NASCAR wanted their appeals process to have any sense of legitimacy, in this electronic age they could have set up a web camera to broadcast the hearing to any and all who could sit through what was doubtlessly a highly technical discussion. For all their talk of “transparency” NASCAR apparently still doesn’t want to give the unwashed masses that make up their fan base a peek behind the curtain or even to be in the area when the Wizard makes a break for his hot air balloon.

As I wrote last week on this topic, in order to be effective punishment needs to be swift, severe and certain. This whole mess has now dragged on over a month. The penalties that remain are not severe. Throw away the NASCAR rule book. Punishment is no longer certain – at least not for certain teams.

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

Contact Matt McLaughlin

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Stephen Hood
03/21/2012 02:09 AM
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Maybe Middlebrook took the middle way. Hendrick’s case looks good. NASCAR’s case is strong as well. Let’s split it down the middle. I envision multiple scenarios where this is a fair and sensible outcome based on the rules in place. The final court often overturns or amends the decisions of lower courts. If lower courts didn’t make errors, there wouldn’t be a need for appeals.

Vicki
03/21/2012 07:40 AM
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I believe Middlebrook’s message to NASCAR was: if you believe there is a problem, put the car through the inspection first. A visual inspection isn’t enough to assess such harsh penalties.

Ghost of Curtis Turner
03/21/2012 07:49 AM
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The car never was subjected to a template, it’s NASCARS Fault for this being over turned. Had the Officals put the car through the template proccess, then the fines would have been upheld. NASCAR got spanked with it’s own rule book for once. Good!

johnboy60
03/21/2012 07:56 AM
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You had it right!! The FELON bought his way out of another one!!…

Bill B
03/21/2012 07:56 AM
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I think the less time we spend thinking about this one and trying to understand it, the better off we will all be. It defies logic. None of this, from beginning to end, makes sense.
Thank God it’s only a “sport” and not real life so there is no impact on any of us. Just turn the page and find a way to release some endorphins.

Mike In NH
03/21/2012 08:09 AM
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The real problem is that while Middlebrook’s decision may be the correct one, his familiarity with Hendrick creates the taint, the perception, that it’s not. He should have recused himself.

Having said that, if any drivers out there are pissed he got away with it, all they need to do to re-impose a 25 point penalty is “accidentally” put him in the wall and out of the race about a third of the way in… heck, there are probably enough ticked off fans to sponsor a car at a dollar apiece to do just that! :)

Janice
03/21/2012 08:10 AM
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i’m sure some check, besides the fine, was involved.

whatever little credibility na$car had left, ha!

SHOEMAN
03/21/2012 08:37 AM
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Can you say CHEATER? Cheaters never win and winners never cheat!

midasmicah
03/21/2012 09:10 AM
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Well nascar. How many more fans are you trying to chase away from the sport. This not only screams of conflict of interest,it it reeks of cronyism. A f**king sad day for the fans.

Carl D.
03/21/2012 09:18 AM
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Matt…

I blasted an email to Tom Bowles yesterday basically saying what you did… there’s either something very fishy going on here, or everyone from the technical inspectors to Robin Pemberton and Mike Helton, and including the members of the appeals panel, are grossly incompetent. My assessment… it’s probably both. The fact that Middlebrook took the coward’s route and didn’t bother explain his decision makes the appeal ruling even more suspect. If this whole process isn’t complete BS, it certainly has the same stench. I’m disgusted.

Managing Editor
03/21/2012 10:42 AM
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Carl D.,

Never got your email! Where’d you send it? tom.bowles@frontstretch.com usually works…

Matt
03/21/2012 11:35 AM
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Just saw this quote from Knaus and it says it all.

“There’s two sides to every story.There’s my side, NASCAR’s side and the truth. That always lies in the middle somewhere

Well, ummm, isn’t that three sides to the story? And isn’t Knaus admitting he wasn’t entirely truthful?

Steve Harwood
03/21/2012 11:37 AM
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I can’t understand why any of this even took place! From what I hear the 48 car never even rolled on to Pit Road before the C-Posts were changed. Where is the infraction? All adds up to more NASCAR drama. As far as the $100K, once cash hits the France Family pocket, it ain’t comin’ out.

ArkyBass
03/21/2012 11:53 AM
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The car never raced or even took a lap on a track. It was stopped in pre-race inspection. At the local tracks a failure of pre-race inspection prevents an illegal car from racing. NASCAR succeeded in that aspect and that should have been the end of it.

I understand the car has race before..If the Team was told not to bring the car back to the track thats would somewhat explain NASCARs actions. What happened was ‘it didn’t look right’ and that not compelling evidence in any hearing.

Big fan of Matt’s, read every column he writes (for years) but I can’t agree. As Amy Henderson said in another article ‘Taking points when no points were earned is ridiculous”

Carl D.
03/21/2012 11:53 AM
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Tom…

I used the Contact Us/ Email Us link at the top of the page: It goes to TomBowlesFS@gmail.com.

Sue Rarick
03/21/2012 11:53 AM
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Middlebrook never recinded 12-1 violation hence the $100k fine and probation…

Nascar had the tools at hand to make actual measurements of the violation and of cars that did pass and didn’t.

Middlebrook is a very good friend of Childress and only slightly reduced his penalties.

Middlebrook has a track record of reducing fines in all his cases.

I seriously doubt either Nascar or Hendricks has the cash to bribe Middlebrook—-Those old GM folk made a fortune at GM.

Everyone has a price but I seriously doubt the case was worth the fortune it would have taken.

PS. Glad to hear you’ve taken courses to improve your village standing – LOL

Josie
03/21/2012 11:55 AM
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The verdict to me doesn’t really matter to me..except I’m not sure what the verdict was! Was it you’re guilty but not “too guilty”? OR was it you’re innocent but “not really”? If I commit a crime I sure hope I have Mr. Middlebrook as my judge!

Boosigns88
03/21/2012 11:58 AM
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Well I guess money can buy anything……

Matt
03/21/2012 12:10 PM
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Josie, Precisely. Yesterday Middlebrook basically said the patient was half-pregnant.

grumpiestoldman
03/21/2012 12:14 PM
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A convicted felon knows how to work the system. I think this casts a shadow on the legitimacy of all of Johnson’s championships.

24Crazy
03/21/2012 12:18 PM
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For all consperacy(sp) theorists this is what got the Sh!t overturned…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 Jimmie Johnson’s car wasn’t given that opportunity. Unconfirmed reports had Kyle Busch’s No. 18 as one of those cars. So should they all have 25pt penalty, suspensions, and fines? 1st Nascar needs to be fair and consistent..HaHa 2nd All you jurors out there need to have the facts before handing out a verdict.

fuzzy
03/21/2012 12:20 PM
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Middlebrook is a crook like FELLON Rick,what a joke !!

fuzzy
03/21/2012 12:22 PM
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Middlebrook is a crook like FELON Rick,what a joke !!

Bill B
03/21/2012 12:24 PM
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@24Crazy,
Maybe if Chad hadn’t been overheard telling Jimmie to wreck the car if he won at Talladega last year we non-Jimmie fans could have been more objective.

Jim W
03/21/2012 12:52 PM
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It sounds like the final ruling mostly in favor of the 48 was based on NASCAR not following their own inspection procedure – you KNOW someone tipped them off to this issue before hand. That is how it works in the Cup garage.

That said – I thought a lesser penalty was needed (maybe 1-2 races) with some points taken away….if we are reducing the penalty make it 10 points. I think the 48 should have gotten a penalty that included suspension/points – but also think the original penalty was too harsh.

Carl D.
03/21/2012 12:56 PM
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24Crazy…

So… “unconfirmed reports” are facts? And do you really think Nascar would show favoritism to Kyle Bush over Jimmie Johnson?

underbird
03/21/2012 12:57 PM
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Nascar has stolen championships from other teams for much less. Just ask Clint Bowyer or Mark Martin. Hendrick and GM have been circumventing the nebulous rules for years without fear of reprisal. I assumed (wrongly) that when GM became Government Motors that their graft payments would stop, but I suppose that was just wishful thinking.

I am not surprised by this decision in the least.

rwm
03/21/2012 01:12 PM
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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.

Jim_812
03/21/2012 01:24 PM
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When an individual that is not only a close personal friend of the team owner in question but a former top level executive and loyal to the manufacturer in question can come in and overrule a decision previously upheld by a three person panel, which has made it’s determination based on facts from NASCAR’s own inspection personnel, this reeks of conspiracy and back room payments.

And AGAIN, for those saying that the car never made it to the track, then why was it at the track to begin with? To race, that’s why. It was going to the track, so stop saying that the car wasn’t on the track. That has NO bearing. The intent to race was there.

This debacle is a HUGE embarrassment for NASCAR, and they will see a lot of fallout over this in the weeks to come.

Matt
03/21/2012 01:37 PM
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The car was in fact on the track.It competed in all four plate races last year and won in the Spring at Talladega. It’s the same car Chad told Jimmie to back into the fence at Talladega if he won there last fall. Yet, they bring it to Daytona and profess to be surprised it earned aa little extra scrutiny. After Chad’s comments to Jimmie a sane man would have had the body of that car sliced to pieces before NASCAR came to have a look at it but apparently Chad knew he was above the law. I’m not going to compare first degree murder to cheating in a car race, but this is NASCAR’s OJ Simpson verdict.

Jim
03/21/2012 01:48 PM
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Just when you think Nascar can’t fall any lower.

I wish Roger Goodell ran Nascar.

Kevin in SoCal
03/21/2012 02:11 PM
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I hope none of you are ever on a jury, because your opinions of Chad, Jimmie, and Rick all cloud your judgement. The deal breaker for me is the car was never put on the templates to see if it was wrong. The NASCAR officials just said “it looks wrong” and gave them a fine, penalty, and suspension.

JD in NC
03/21/2012 02:12 PM
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If the car was indeed illegal NASCAR screwed themselves on this. Put on the templates and take pictures of being out of spec. Exhibit A your honor – case closed. But instead all they have is it “didn’t look right” (what do you mean officer? No radar proof but it looked like I was going 50 in a 35?).
Also all of you that think the 48 team is the only one that bends the rules are delusional. Hell, I bet they’ve all cheated at one time or the other. And there is a big difference between deliberately cheating like Mikey’s team using a fuel additive at Daytona and exploiting the gray areas in the rule book.

Lugnut
03/21/2012 02:14 PM
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I’m pretty sure the $100,000 fine was a sign that NASCAR had them red handed, but messed up (Something was fishy, but NASCAR blew the case)

Carl D.
03/21/2012 02:50 PM
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Kevin…

It’s not about Jimmie or Chad or Rick. Nascar officials said the car was illegal. An appeals panel said the car was illegal. One man, without any explanation, said that they were all wrong. This is about credibility and competence. If Middlebrook is right, then everyone else is wrong, from Nascar’s top management to it’s technical inspectors. If Middlebrook is wrong, then Matt is right… justice was not served.

Earner
03/21/2012 02:55 PM
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A Travesty is that lame excuse for missing Kenseth TWICE jumping the green …Talk about fixed! & Then to lie & say Brad didn’t start fast enough instead of “we were asleep at the switch & didn’t know what to do ….Maybe use the guy who spotted those “C Pillars” to watch the race as nascar thinks his eyes are great

Matt
03/21/2012 03:16 PM
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Earner,
I’ll be publishing a column on the restart topic tomorrow. Stay tuned, same Matt-time, same Matt-channel.

sunfighter
03/21/2012 04:51 PM
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Just when I thought it couldn’t get worse. A former VP at GM overturns all but the money. Tell me again, what brand of car does JJ drive? Na$$$$car, you did it again. Finally, my brother is coming around to the fact that mega-bucks has destroyed our sport. Kinda reminds me of other sports… just pay off a ref and you’re good to go. I’ve got no dog in this hunt, but, my gut feeling is nascar was peeved when they figured out that Chad had been sneaking one by them all last season. thus, the lack of tech, or templates.

Timmy
03/21/2012 05:00 PM
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I’ll say it again…if I’m a nascar racer I want to drive a chevy with Hendrick motors/connections.

And if I’m a sponsor I want my sticker on a Hendrick/chevy car.

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Otherwise you’re just wasting you’re money. It’s nascar’s playground people.

Matt
03/21/2012 05:11 PM
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It’s hard to say NASCAR is like “other sports” when today the NFL came down on the New Orlens Aints like a ton of bricks for rules infractions. The head coach is suspended for the entire 2012-13 season.

underbird
03/21/2012 05:34 PM
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This whole thing just has a rotten smell to it. I can’t imagine what the other owners must be thinking at this point. If you break the rules just make damn sure you’re driving a Chevy.

It’s going to be a long year for us underdogs. While some of my teams are struggling along without major sponsorship, others can afford to share theirs (and their arbitrators) with Nascar.

I wonder how many of my tax dollars went to pay this guy off.

janice
03/21/2012 06:21 PM
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boy….i wonder how many drivers are holding their tongues for fear of the secret fine from nascar for exercising their right to free speech?

61 starliner
03/21/2012 07:32 PM
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The only thing that is a tragedy is that some moron somewhere lets you write columns about anything

AUGI
03/21/2012 08:31 PM
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REMEMBER FOLKS NASCAR I S NOT A DEMOCRACY.WHICH WAY IS UP?

DoninAjax
03/21/2012 08:35 PM
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Brian laughed all the way to his bank.

Managing Editor
03/21/2012 11:09 PM
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FYI, Matt’s restart column is being held until Friday because of the breaking news on Bristol’s re-repaving. You guys get four doses of Matt in one week!

Wallbanger
03/22/2012 06:29 AM
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David newton wrote an excellent article posted on ESPN.com Wednseday that offers a clearheaded assessment of the appeal decision without any black helicopters. All reading here should read that as well.

TheJoker
03/22/2012 08:36 AM
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AGAIN I SAY…the fact that over and over again, Chad gets caught cheating(…whether properly punished or not) takes all legitimacy of those five championships.

This needs to be taken to the sponsors. Apparently LOWES condones cheating. What kind of message are they conveying to our children?

Don Wolf
03/22/2012 09:55 AM
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Reading all these comments, it occurs to me most have been written by Ford fans.If he wants to compete maybe Roush should switch to Chevrolets.

robbiejr
03/23/2012 11:36 AM
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Think what the sport would be like if we had someone at the top like the NFL does. Sean Payton got caught trying to cover up the bounty program at New Orleans and lying about it to investigators, after he was clearly told it was against the rules and to stop it. So the commissioner suspended him from coaching for the entire 2012 season, WITHOUT PAY. When his suspension starts, he can have no contact with the team for the year. I guarantee you, that got not only Sean Payton’s attention, but every coach’s attention in the league. It’s too bad NASCAR doesn’t have the guts, or the integrity, to treat rule breakers the same way.