Race Weekend Central

Full Throttle – Sending a message to the field

The 2011 season brought a break in the pattern that the No. 48 team had grown accustomed to over the last five years. While they were in contention for the championship, they never really seemed to be a factor and found themselves completely eliminated from the running before they arrived at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Many fans were of the opinion that Chad Knaus, often credited with being the reason for Jimmie Johnson’s success, had lost his magic touch and was out-strategized over the year. Whether that was true or not, the recent troubles the team had during technical inspection at Daytona International Speedway are sending a message to the rest of the garage: Old Chad is back.

Knaus has run afoul of the NASCAR technical inspectors multiple times in his career, like most of the other crew chiefs in the garage, but it has been a few years since his last run-in with the NASCAR law. The last major violation came when the crew chief was penalized at Infineon Raceway in 2007 for the fender panels that fell into the sanctioning body’s “gray area” despite the car fitting the template, a move that resulted in a six-week suspension accompanied by a points and monetary fine.

Friday’s violation at Daytona, found in the opening technical inspection for the event, is a similar instance. The C-post fit the templates where it is supposed to touch, but the area between those points “didn’t look right”, according to the technical inspectors. While Knaus and the Hendrick organization maintain that the posts haven’t changed since Daytona last season, the inspectors confiscated the parts that were “too far out of tolerance to fix” according to Sprint Cup Director John Darby.

Whether the posts are the same as they were last season or something completely different for this year, there is no question that Knaus has gone to work. The C-posts were fabricated in an attempt to keep the air off of the rear spoiler because, to put it simply, the less drag there is on the rear spoiler, the faster the car will run. Knaus studied under Ray Evernham and has long been known for thinking outside of the box, and this is just another example of how he tries to make the No. 48 the best it can be by massaging the areas the ever-tightening rule book leaves room for him to massage.

For the teams and fans that were of the mindset that Knaus had lost the edge, this violation is a clear shot across the bow to let everyone know he’s back. If the only crew chief to win five consecutive championships had gotten soft or rested on his laurels, he is clearly letting everyone know that he is not resting in 2012. If the posts had not been considered illegal, the No. 48 would certainly have been a little faster. But would it have been fast enough to win? No one knows for sure if the aerodynamic advantage would have been enough to push the former champ’s car to the front for the checkered flag, or if it will be fast enough now that it has been corrected, but it would have been enough to get the garage talking. Now that the posts were declared illegal, the garage is still talking, only this time it’s about Knaus being busted again, albeit the first time in almost five years.

There is no question that Knaus would not do something with the express thought of it being found illegal. He will push the limits in what few gray areas there are in the rule book, but being thrown out during technical inspection not only hurts his team on several fronts, but it also can end up costing Knaus money, his driver and owner championship points, and his owner even more money. However, there are benefits to pushing the rules to the limit and potentially being found illegal. Knaus, along with Johnson, are quite well known for playing mind games and getting in the heads of the other drivers.

There is no question that they crawled into Denny Hamlin’s melon at Homestead at the end of the 2010 season which resulted in the driver of the No. 11 knocking himself out of the title chase early in the event by self-inflicted wreck. Being found in violation during tech gets the rest of the garage thinking about what Knaus is doing–again. The questions about his losing the edge are replaced by wonder about what Chad has figured out now that other teams have not. If Johnson can manage to get into Victory Lane once or twice early in the season, the mind games will only intensify.

Knaus has always been considered one of the best–if not the best–minds in the garage area today, possibly one of the best of all time. However, as in any sport, when the champion team is dethroned, people begin to question if they have lost something. Knaus answered that in the negative when he changed things up during the off-season and took an actual vacation. Now he’s been busted by the NASCAR cops for pushing the limits.

Knaus may have lost a little edge last season, but it has been honed over the offseason and the edge is as sharp as it has ever been now that the series is back at Daytona. The rest of the teams will undoubtedly have to step up their game because the Old Chad is back.

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