Vito Pugliese · Thursday February 23, 2012
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Chad Knaus Is Exactly What is Right With NASCAR.
How’s that for a season-starting title?! That’s the kind of kick in the pants Sheriff Buford T. Justice (of Texas) would deem “an attention getter.”
Three years ago I would have scoffed, sneered, and flatly rejected such a claim, but following the news this week that the architect of five consecutive Sprint Cup titles might be facing a fine and/or suspension after an inspection issue prior to practice for qualifying for the Daytona 500 – I can unabashedly declare myself Pro-Knaus.
Does that imply, then, that I am anti-NASCAR? Hardly; if anything, Knaus is exactly what NASCAR needs, and should issue him some sort of commendation rather than dock him dollars and days at the track.
This most recent incident for the sanctioning body is particularly troubling, as the No. 48 Chevrolet was never involved in competition – it only was in the process of being inspected. Again, the car was never on the track, in a points-paying capacity or otherwise; it was the initial inspection prior to practice. So, in theory, nothing was ever found to be out of specification after on-track results – just eyeballed and deemed inappropriate. While this may smack of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s “I know it when I see it” threshold for pornography, NASCAR inspectors found the C pillar on the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet to be inappropriate for viewing by 42 others.
Practice. We’re talking about practice – even Allen Iverson thinks this one is silly.
Sprint Cup Director John Darby said, “There were some obvious modifications that the inspectors picked up on, and did some additional inspections with some gauges and stuff and found that they were just too far out of tolerance to fix.”
That being said, it was a car that had been raced in competition four times earlier, and was taken to NASCAR’s R&D Center for evaluation after the spring race at Talladega last season. There was not a statement from NASCAR that the car was ordered never to come back to the racetrack, nor was it confiscated and held for six months like a captured Predator aerial drone, as one of Tony Stewart’s JGR Chevrolets was several years ago when NASCAR didn’t like what they saw. It was a car that had cleared inspection in the past under the existing rules – so why enforce a rule that does not exist?
By now, we’ve all pretty much hugged it out as far as lamenting the long gone days of yore, when Junior Johnson would fit a car with a 28-gallon fuel tank after being instructed to remove the 24-gallon tank he was just caught with, or Bobby Allison’s bumper falling off to gain a few mph after the start of the Daytona 500. No longer does birdshot run out of the frame rails on pace laps, or starters fall off engines in an effort to shed a few pounds once the race starts, and God forbid if a pair of shocks don’t totally rebound and the car can’t clear the height sticks by 1/32nd of an inch. The gray area that teams are allowed to play in has been virtually erased since the advent of the COT; the era of innovation nearly all but ended in 2007. Now, what used to be a simple template has been replaced by a gigantic claw, with laser instruments becoming the new form of NASCAR “tape measure.”
In a sport where new technology is slow in coming, 2012 was to be a watershed year. Electronic Fuel Injection is making its debut, into one of the few major racing series that was still using carburetors, and the 2013 COTs revealed from Ford and spy shots from Dodge show what look to be stock cars that sincerely look like stock cars, save for big tires and headlight stickers.
So why continually harass crew chiefs who come up with a new part or idea?
In short, the fun of race car wrenching has been replaced by the science of engineering. Trial and error has been replaced with simulation and algorithm, be it on a seven-post shaker or the mounds of data acquisition equipment seen at any test session. Pretty much every longtime crewman and fan will echo the same sentiment. Why, then, is Knaus regularly reviled for his efforts in creative engineering?
Chad Knaus is a bit of an anomaly in NASCAR. Name one other crew chief that is mentioned in the same breath with their team or driver in relation to the success that they have had. It’s usually the driver who gets the credit and the crew chief who shoulders the blame if things go wrong. Yet in this case, it wasn’t until Jimmie Johnson won his fifth straight title did he start to receive credit for actually winning these things; most attributed it to Knaus building a superior machine to that of the other competitors, including the rest of his Hendrick Motorsports (and Stewart-Haas Racing) stablemates.
Knaus has long had the proverbial rap sheet as long as your arm in NASCAR competition. From trick rear shocks at Dover one year, to the point that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. remarked to his crew that Johnson’s car looked “like a damn monster truck,” to flared fenders at Sonoma and my personal favorite, the adjustable rear window that they actually used during qualifying for the 2006 Daytona 500 (tire smoke could be seen wafting out of the window as the body compressed down exiting the fourth turn), Knaus leaves no stone unturned. He is a prime candidate for a Paxil promotion with the obsessive compulsive nature he has towards finding a new angle to extract speed from his race cars.
So what is the motive behind any possible NASCAR-sanctioned action against Chad Knaus? Do they fear a resurgent No. 48 team that would dull fan interest in the sport, should they get on a roll again and win the biggest race of the year and springboard to another title? What if they sit Knaus down for a few weeks, but succeed in only waking a sleeping giant, confining him to his little shop of horrors to build something even more freaky fast, and allowing another of the Hendrick cadre to step up and make a name for themselves?
My advice is simple: let the crew chiefs and mechanics do their thing, competing amongst themselves by building better cars and allow more within the rules for them to work with. It’s clearly not saving anybody any money – if anything, it is costing them in terms of fines and potential sponsorship backlash. Moreover, there seems to be a strong show of support for Knaus in this situation among fans, commentators, and crewmen alike.
As much as the drivers’ personalities are a part of this sport, the hardcore fans are well aware and familiar with those atop the pit box as well. So relax the rules, bring the mechanical tinkering aspect back to the sport, and allow the crew chiefs and car chiefs the opportunity to showcase their talents at the highest levels of motorsports in America.
The Daytona 500 is the biggest race of the year, our Super Bowl. That means everybody should have the opportunity to shine their brightest and perform to the best of their ability, as long as it is in the rules. Chad Knaus didn’t break any – from what I can tell – but I guess in NASCAR, if there’s a rule that is broken, they’ll know it when they choose to see it.
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