Race Weekend Central

Bread and Circuses Surround No. 48 Appeal… But Did It Matter?

When even Lug Nut is outside, chowing down lunch and patiently waiting for a verdict you know NASCAR’s Tuesday appeal had turned into more of a Barnum Bailey Circus than anything else.

To nobody’s great surprise, the appeals board upheld the penalties assessed against the No. 48 team after Daytona on Tuesday. What probably caught everyone off guard was the media scrum Tuesday’s hearing became. The parking lot of NASCAR’s Research and Development Center was dominated by two massive satellite trucks set to beam the momentous outcome to the unwashed masses huddled around their cell phones and other electronic devices. The nearby Charlotte Motor Speedway got into the act, sending their somewhat scary track mascot, Lug Nut, to the parking lot where the fourth estate huddled replete with a food offering of fried cupcakes. As the wait stretched on, BK Racing Cup driver Landon Cassill decided to join the fray, bringing massive amounts of Burger King Whoppers to sustain the press as they uncustomarily had to work through lunch on a weekday. There were even suggestions that some of the energy drink makers donate to the cause. (I got all this secondhand from two friends who were in the scrum. Hey, it was 76 degrees here in Pennsylvania Tuesday. I was out on the Harley hoping the local cops wouldn’t note the expired plate.) Somehow the Knaus appeal overshadowed, however briefly, the rising price of gas and the tragedy in Afghanistan this weekend in the collective American imagination. Even fans who learned of the hoopla at the R and D Center began to flock there to watch the circus. Perhaps there was an air of disappointment amongst some of them that Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson weren’t delivered to the guillotine for immediate execution after the guilty verdict.

Again, few people were surprised by the decision. In just about seventy percent of the cases they hear, the appeals board upholds NASCAR’s consequences. Knaus already has gotten a rare mulligan from the panel for an infraction back in 2005. Who were the three voting members? Well, fortunately, none of them were dead as Kyle Petty hinted Sunday in his rant against the appeals mechanism. The three included Leo Mehl, the longtime director of Goodyear’s racing program; Dale Pinilis, who runs the Bowman-Gray Stadium track in North Carolina; and John Capels, who is the former chairman of USAC. All of them have been at racetracks lately, while Mehl has probably been to more auto races in all different forms of the sport than any other human alive. As a promoter at a short track, Pinilis has had to deal with countless rules infractions and mete out appropriate punishments. Capels has been the final arbitrator in countless disputed penalties. I’d say it was a fairly august panel that rendered the decision.

Kyle Petty’s strongly stated preference was that Knaus deserved a trial in front of his contemporaries, or peers if you will. While a trial by peers sounds appealing to fans of the U.S. Constitution, it’s an unworkable solution. Say Jack Roush was on that panel. Would he be able to put aside the fact Johnson was fined 25 points and that might make it easier for one of his own teams to win the title? Conversely, could Tony Stewart, wearing his team owner’s hat, render a fair verdict knowing his team gets engines, chassis, and tech help from the same organization accused of cheating?

After losing their appeal hearing on Tuesday, this guy will be on the pit box at Bristol pending a second appeal… but did the appeals board get this one right? Photo credit: Todd Warshaw, Getty Images

The Hendrick racing argument was basically twofold. First, they say that same car has been inspected numerous times and in all previous instances has been found compliant with the rules. To me, that’s like telling a traffic cop “I run this road at 80 MPH every day and I’ve never gotten a ticket, so you can’t write me one now.” Secondly, and this part is their more compelling point, they say not only did the car never make it out onto the track, the templates were never placed on the car. The team was told something “didn’t look right” and they were told to make repairs to the suspect C-posts. Oddly enough, Knaus knew exactly what was wrong and was able to have proper C panels on the car within hours. Obviously, he knew that the parts he was presenting were suspect but that the car was going to fit the templates anyway because he’d doctored an area of those panels the templates don’t measure. Somehow, I doubt that’s a little trick he stumbled across. To me, that sounds like many hours of expensive wind tunnel time and analysis to circumvent the intent of the rule. And it’s not like Knaus hasn’t been punished previous to this incident and warned not to mess with the bodies.

It would have been better for all involved if NASCAR had, in fact, fitted the templates to the car, and in the future I think they should. At that point they could have pointed out their area of concern. Yes, the team was told “something didn’t look right.” Here’s my guess on why the inspectors were all over that car looking so quickly at the area in question. In the NASCAR garage, the top teams work side by side. (Garage stalls are assigned by owner’s points.) There’s a lot of sharp individuals looking surreptitiously but carefully at their competitor’s cars. And during the offseason, even in this economy, there’s still a fair amount of turnover within the race teams. It may just be that someone who formerly worked at HMS and knew the secret of that No. 48 plate car talked out of school. When Hendrick said he did an exhaustive search of records to find out who built and worked on that car, he was probably just trying to figure out which former employee had ratted him out.

The argument that the car “never even made it out onto the track” is imbecilic. By the team’s own admission, it ran all four plate races last year and won the Talladega spring event last April. It’s the team’s contention that the car was never modified anyway after it was last used in the Fall Talladega event. That, of course, was the race where Chad Knaus was overheard clearly telling Johnson that if he were to win the race, he needed to back the car into the fence during the postrace celebration. So there you have it. Knaus knew something wasn’t right with the car and yet he had the audacity to bring it back for this year’s Daytona 500. Any more questions why NASCAR singled out the No. 48 car in pre-race inspection? They knew they’d been snookered last year and they don’t much like that.

An argument Hendrick Motorsports didn’t make but No. 48 team apologists have been screaming is that NASCAR is too regulated and the Cup Series has devolved to little more than the old IROC series. First off, that’s not germane to the argument here. Secondly, with the new EFI system the teams are running this year there’s plenty of room left to learn the system quicker than your rivals while staying within the rules to gain an advantage. There’s reams of new data to analyze and understand and some teams are already doing better than others. You think Tony Stewart was able to run off and hide from everyone else on those final few restarts at Vegas because all the cars are the same? Thirdly, when you’re a driver at Daytona like Trevor Bayne struggling to get a good result and salvage your career, it would be nice to know that the table’s level for everyone before going all in.

So what happens next? Hendrick Motorsports has already announced that they will take the matter to the final level of appeal in the sport, making their case in front of NASCAR’s Chief Appellate Officer, John Middlebrook, a former GM executive, who will have the final say in the matter. When? Who knows? Wherever that hearing is held, maybe NASCAR ought to set up bleachers and sell tickets to the fans. (But they’ll have to bring their own cupcakes. The NASCAR media horde feeds like a pack of orca.)

Back in college psychology courses and in the training of various dogs, I’ve learned that in order to be effective punishment must be severe, swift, and certain to have a lasting effect. In this case, the punishment NASCAR decided on is clearly not severe enough, yet the outcome is still uncertain. What’s worse, this whole sorry mess has been dragging on for a month now with more time to elapse before the matter is settled once and for all. In my opinion, when the final verdict comes it would be incredibly damaging to the sport if HMS were to win this last appeal. The public perception would be stock car racing has become a checkbook rulebook sport, wherein those who can write the biggest checks rewrite the rules.

“Contact Matt McLaughlin”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/14348/

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