A possible Knaus/Malec suspension will not derail the machine that is Team 48
by Vito Pugliese
You could forgive team owner Rick Hendrick if he now believes NASCAR really is an acronym standing for “Never Appeal Suspensions for Chad And Ron”.
Following Tuesday’s initial appeal before the National Stock Car Appeals Panel, the suspensions of crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec were upheld, one-upping five-time Jimmie Johnson becoming six-time — as in, out of commission for six straight races. While Hendrick was diplomatic and conciliatory, recognizing NASCAR for providing the opportunity to state his case, he was nonetheless steadfast in his commitment to further escalate the appeals process. When asked if he accepted the outcome of the board’s review, he was unusually stern in his response:
“I don’t accept it. Period.”
So what of the perpetual appeal process for unapproved C-post modifications that has gone on since the Daytona 500? Are Hendrick and Knaus fighting a battle they cannot win, simply delaying the inevitable? Or is it a bit of formulated “strateegery” in an effort to help maximize the first few races of the season and build some much-needed momentum in the likelihood that the brain trust of race-weekend preparation will be out for the same time it takes a broken leg to heal?
As we have come to recognize since 2004, it is never too early to start thinking about The Chase.
Think back two weeks ago to the race at Phoenix. If not for an uncharacteristic mid-race loose wheel pit miscue, the No. 48 team would have checked out, standing in Victory Lane, and nothing would have been written about Denny Hamlin’s newfound confidence or Darian Grubb being a war wagon Zen master.
Last weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in their sponsor’s Kobalt Tool’s 400, Johnson was snookered by quasi-teammate Tony Stewart on a restart with four laps to go, finishing second. Those two near-wins have catapulted Johnson — who was at –23 points just a couple of weeks ago — up to 23rd in the standings. While not exactly something the dynasty of the decade usually would rally around, it has brought the team to within 36 points of 10th-place driver Mark Martin.
This is significant for a few reasons. First, Martin is driving a part-time schedule and is taking this weekend off — which heading into the concrete mixing bowl of retaliation that is Bristol, is probably good news for Dale Earnhardt Jr. following their dust up in the closing laps in Vegas. The 10th-place position in points is of utmost importance, of course, as that is the cut off for marking the Chase after race No. 26 at Richmond.
Finally, 36 points is what is paid for finishing in eighth place. In the last six races at Bristol, Johnson has lead 694 laps and posted an average finish of 9.0. Factor in a bonus point for leading a lap, and you have eighth-place points for the 48 nearly guaranteed this weekend. The one anomaly during those last six Bristol races was a 35th-place finish at the night race in 2010. Even then, Johnson had led 175 of 263 laps before being turned into the backstretch wall by Juan Pablo Montoya.
A strong run at Bristol will provide much-needed momentum that will overcome the 25-point fine levied at Daytona, and should the final appeal be heard next Tuesday, Knaus and Malec will begin serving their suspensions during the weekend of Fontana when the series heads to the Auto Club Speedway. How has Johnson faired at what is essentially his home track in Southern California?
In the last eight races he’s won four times, posted two second-place finishes, a third and a downright shameful result of ninth in 2009. Safe to say, I could clamber up atop the box in Fontucky and engineer a top 10 for J.J. at Michigan International Speedway’s illegitimate sister track.
The schedule then winds back east to Martinsville, where the results are similar. Two wins in eight races with an average finish of 4.4. If he keeps the fenders on it and the curbs off it, a top 10 is a virtual certainty. Intermediate tracks Kansas and Texas follow where Johnson enjoys lifetime average finishes of 8.4 and 10.2.
Richmond would be the fifth race of the Knaus/Malec suspension, and may prove to be a stumbling block. The last eight races at the three-quarter mile track have produced an average finish of 16.3, although there is a 2008 win mixed in, and three of the last four visits producing top-10 runs. I know, “Oh the humanity!” Sub-par days for the 48 have most other teams buying a case of beer and fist-pumping into the wee hours of the morning. That said, if there is one race to write off in the final six, it just might end up being Richmond.
Or the next week at Talladega.
Always a crapshoot — and an even larger roll of the restrictor-plate dice than Daytona — Johnson traditionally finds himself involved in or triggering the requisite 30-car Alabama junkyard. No reason to throw in the towel though, as he is the defending race champion, Hendrick Motorsports doesn’t hurt for horsepower at the big tracks, and as long as he doesn’t get wiped out in two laps like at Daytona — and there are no shenanigans with the C-posts or calls to crack the back of the car — things should be fine.
That is, of course, if the big one doesn’t crack up the front of the car for him.
The six-week vacation for Knaus and Malec would wrap up following Talladega. In the meantime the duo will be able to spend a few extra days a week in their little shop of horrors, preparing new cars for the next races at Darlington for the Southern 500 and perhaps the most important event in the first third of the schedule, the Coca-Cola 600.
These two tracks are significant for a number of reasons. The Southern 500 has long been considered the second-most prestigious race on the schedule (until the advent of the big-money Brickyard 400), and while the Daytona 500 was the race the drivers wanted to win, crew chiefs and mechanics always longed to beat “The Track Too Tough To Tame.” After a month and a half off, Knaus and Malec will likely be itching to get back into pitched battle with The Lady In Black.
The Coca-Cola 600 run on Memorial Day weekend is the longest race of the year and puts the cap on two weeks spent at the epicenter of the NASCAR industry in Charlotte. It was the track that Knaus and Johnson once deemed “Our House” in reference to team sponsor Lowe’s, which once owned naming rights to the facility (and because the 48 won five of six races, as well as two wins in the All-Star Race). Going green just hours after the Indianapolis 500, it rivals the greatest spectacle in racing as the most important motorsports day in America, and is also the kickoff to the famed “Summer Stretch” of NASCAR: an eight-week grind that sees the series go north, west and south, comprised of intermediate tracks, a road course and the second restrictor plate race at Daytona.
It is during this time when teams find out if their latest generation of cars are up to snuff, provides an indication of who is top 10 material, and who will have to rely on pulling out a win to make the 12-driver Chase come September. If early-season performance has been any indication, the No. 48 team will easily qualify, as it has every season since the championship format was introduced in 2004.
If Knaus, Malec, Johnson and company should get their noses bloodied during Knaus’ and Malec’s absence, unable to overcome the 25-point penalty, they can still qualify for the playoffs on wins as a wild card. However, it is unlikely that will be necessary, and even if it is, is there any doubt this team could crank out a few wins if the entire might of Hendrick Motorsports was brought to bear?
As always, it is never too early to start thinking about the Chase. If the appeal strategy and timeline being followed by Hendrick and Knaus is any indication, they began thinking ahead as soon as they were pulled out of the inspection line nearly a month ago.
Follow Vito on Twitter: @VitoPugliese