Sometimes in NASCAR, it's best to say nothing at all
by Mike Neff
On Wednesday, SBNation.com’s Jeff Gluck reported that prior to the Good Sam Club 500 at Talladega on Sunday, crew chief Chad Knaus was overheard on NASCAR.com’s RaceBuddy telling Jimmie Johnson that, should he win the race, he needed to inflict some damage on the car’s rear end during his victory celebration. While there wasn’t a post-race celebration for Johnson, this conversation has certainly stirred the pot that always seems to swirl around Knaus and his history of pushing the envelope of NASCAR’s rule book. Johnson’s car passed three different inspections last weekend, so it was certainly within the parameters set by the sanctioning body — but hearing dialogue between crew chief and driver is going to cause people to, once again, point the “cheater finger” at Knaus.
There is definitely a history of Knaus pushing the limits in NASCAR’s infamous gray area (and some of the black and white areas, as well), so it is certainly justified for people to question what might have been going on with the 48 car’s rear end. Remember that Knaus was told to leave the track days before Johnson won the 2006 Daytona 500 thanks to a design on the car that allowed the rear window to be changed when it appeared a wedge adjustment was being made to the car. While it might have appeared to fall within the gray area of the rule book, NASCAR felt it was altering a piece of the car that was not supposed to be touched, thus an expulsion and suspension.
Knaus found himself in hot water at Infineon Raceway shortly after the Car of Tomorrow was introduced in 2007 when his team massaged the fenders of the car between the points where NASCAR’s inspection “claw” touched the body. While the car passed the requirements of touching the template at all of the required points, it was different from other cars in the areas between the points, and therefore, was deemed to provide an unfair advantage. It must be noted that there is room for debate as to whether this instance was actually cheating or simply working within the gray area, but Knaus was fined $100,000 and suspended for six races, an example of NASCAR sending a message to the garage area to be mindful of it’s hard-line CoT specs.
There was also “Shockgate” at Dover in 2005, when the shock absorbers on Johnson’s car actually raised up after use rather than sank, as shocks normally do. The shocks were perfectly legal within the rules as far as parts and compression rates, but the way they were assembled and how that ultimately made them function was not in the spirit of the rules. NASCAR quickly issued a rule change to prevent that from ever happening again, but it was a classic gray-area play by Knaus.
These are but a few examples of Knaus’s ingenuity — he’s had at least seven violations with at least four being technical in nature that have resulted in no less than $190,000 in fines. Interestingly enough, he has not been fined since 2007.
No one but Knaus and his team know if there were any shenanigans going on with the No. 48 last weekend. Knaus explained that his pre-race “request” to Johnson was based on the fact that there is a tremendous amount of bumping that takes place during tandem racing at plate tracks. With the tight tolerances that NASCAR imposes on restrictor plate tracks, it would be very easy for a car to get knocked outside of those measurements simply through the aggressive bump drafting that occurs at 200 mph.
While that certainly seems like a plausible enough explanation, it would seem as though NASCAR’s technical inspectors would take that kind of contact into account and allow for some leeway. Then again, Richard Childress Racing claimed that Clint Bowyer’s car was knocked out of alignment by a tow truck at New Hampshire last season but NASCAR didn’t buy that explanation — so better safe than sorry, right?
Of course, it’s also very possible that Knaus was just trying to cover his bases, reasoning that it would be better, should his car win the race, to make an on-track modification that would prevent any post-race scrutiny rather than have to deal with the inspection nuances over the position of the rear bumper.
It is sad that the current “spec” environment in NASCAR has come to the point that teams will consider damaging their racecars rather than have them probed, measured and dissected so closely after winning a race. Fortunately, that does mean that the playing field is as level as it can possibly be — and that ensures that the racing is as fair as NASCAR can make it.
In the end, even if the No. 48 was legal from tip to tail, it might have been in Knaus’s best interest to keep his mouth shut and let the chips fall where they may. Because as another rule-breaker once said, “Sometimes nothin’ can be a real cool hand.”