Race Weekend Central

Just Win, Baby…

When the word came down Tuesday that the suspension and penalties handed down by NASCAR at Daytona had been rescinded, Chad Knaus remained unfazed. Asked what the apparent appellate vindication meant for his reputation, Knaus responded, “I don’t care about that. I care about winning.”

That should tell you all you need to know about what motivates the five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion crew chief. It’s about the chase, not the Chase. It’s about doing things that other crew chiefs either don’t or aren’t brave enough to try, braving the NASCAR inspectorate and coming out on top. Oh, I’m sure he wants to win races and titles, too. Who doesn’t? But the real chase for Knaus is doing it his way.

His reputation is already cemented as an innovator and as a worker. He has developed a reputation as a bit of a wild card in the Room of Doom, too, much like another crew chief that won a bunch of titles for Rick Hendrick in the 1990s named Ray Evernham. There’s a dichotomy in NASCAR: if you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’ is the first part of it. The other is, NASCAR expects the rules to be followed to its letter and no playing with the boundaries. But Knaus lives where those two points collide.

“It’s been a tough 30 days,” Knaus said. “It’s not about vindication. It’s time to move on.”

You can believe as much–or as little–of that as you want. Chad Knaus lives to win. Period. If he gets caught, gets his name dragged through the garage, so be it. It’s happened before, like at Daytona in 2006, Sonoma in 2007…the list goes on. He’ll push every button, flip over every rock and carve an edge where none were supposed to exist.

What this is going to do, however, is embolden the rest of the crew chiefs in the garage. They look at Knaus, who regularly goes up against a fairly stacked deck and winds up smiling on the other side, and think, “why not?” NASCAR’s inspectorate will be scrutinized more than ever, and that’s a big flip. The watchers being watched themselves is not new, but it’s rare.

Team owner Rick Hendrick, who was thoroughly honked off when the initial appeals panel upheld the penalty, told anyone and everyone that his car was legal. He said he was confident the team did nothing wrong.

“There was no ill intent on our part,” Hendrick said. “We felt by the rulebook we were approved. By the rulebook the car was legal.”

Ah…by the rulebook, they were legal. What about the spirit? You can meet the letter to a T, but be way outside the spirit, and that’s what happened in this case. That little sotto voce convo where Knaus asked Johnson to hit something with the rear end if he won at Talladega was the catalyst for this, I’m sure, and NASCAR swung at a moving target. They clipped it, but failed to stop it.

John Middlebrook is a guy who has, during nearly 50 years of working with General Motors’ racing programs, seen the elephant and watched it die. He backed off the penalties and suspensions, but left the fine in place to serve as a warning. The warning is, “don’t do this again.”

Chad Knaus will do it again, and based on recent history, has a good chance of winning again. After all, that’s what it’s about for him. Whether the opponent is another team, a car in his own stable or NASCAR, it doesn’t matter. Whether the 48 wins the title again this year is a question that will be answered over time, but there’s no question about who won this round early in the season.

NASCAR levied a whopping fine and penalties for a seemingly innocuous infraction, and it seemed like the team would suffer for it. All it did, what with the approval process, was make Knaus sweat for 30 days. That might be enough to rein in his more outlandish notions of what the words in the rule book mean, but I would hazard a guess that he’s already been working on the Next Big Thing back at the shop.

Gary Nelson used to do the same thing and get away with it. So did Smokey Yunick. They’d pick and prod and find a weakness, then exploit it for all they were worth. There’s nothing NASCAR can do except be more vigilant, and that’s a losing game. It’s like a siege, and NASCAR’s inside the castle. Chad Knaus cares about winning, and he’s going to, come hell or high water. He’s already said so, and that’s the playbook NASCAR is going to have to use.

Tech inspection is going to be fun to watch the next few weeks, but the date I’m looking forward to is May 6, when they go to Talladega. It’ll be on again, and it will be interesting to see whether the car comes to tech as it was at Daytona, or if it has been changed.

Then we’ll see who won and who didn’t.

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