Does NASCAR's punishment fit Knaus' crime?
by Vito Pugliese
As if starting out the 2012 NASCAR season by getting turned mid-pack on the second lap of the Daytona 500, it was announced Wednesday that Chad Knaus, crew chief for the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, will be suspended for six races and fined $100,000 for tinkering with the C-posts of the car prior to qualifying for Daytona. Also on involuntary leave will be car chief Ron Malec, another key cog to the five straight championships Jimmie Johnson and team won from 2006-10.
Should the suspensions hold up — team owner Rick Hendrick has stated they will appeal the penalties — Hendrick Motorsports doesn’t exactly hurt for a talent pool from which to pull. It is rumored that a potential replacement atop the pit box could be No. 48 lead engineer Greg Ives, or Mike Baumgartner, former car chief on the No. 24 team of Jeff Gordon.
“Our organization respects NASCAR and the way the sanctioning body governs our sport. In this case, though, the system broke down, and we will voice our concerns through the appeal process,” Hendrick said in a statement following the announcement of the penalties.
Chief among Hendrick’s concerns (as well as mine): If what NASCAR found was repaired before the car went onto the racetrack, why are suspension being handed down? That’s akin to slapping a radar detector on the windshield, but never actually pulling onto the highway at 90 mph.
The C-post sheet metal on a Cup car is a manufactured and stamped piece that is produced for the teams, and in NASCAR terms, not something they encourage be modified and fiddled with — even though there were some cars during Speedweeks in Daytona that had similar modifications, though not to the same degree as the No. 48.
The way the infraction was discovered seems a bit obtuse, as well. While there wasn’t a stated specific rule against what was used, the first statement regarding the piece was that NASCAR “didn’t like how it looked.” Further explanation from competition director John Darby that NASCAR, “did some additional inspections with gauges and stuff,” which resulted in the pieces being cut off, replaced, and more in line with what NASCAR wanted to see on that area of the Lowe’s Chevrolet.
Which brings me back to my original point of contention, as well as that of Hendrick and many in the garage: If the part was never used in competition, was identified and remedied during inspection for the biggest race of the year, where really is the justification for such a staunch set of penalties?
Adding further fuel for confusion is the track history this particular car had established over the last year, having won a race (Talladega) and competed in three others. The car had also been taken to the NASCAR R&D Center for evaluation, where apparently nothing egregious or objectionable was discovered. There was not a statement from NASCAR that the car was ordered to never come back to the racetrack, nor was it confiscated and held for evaluation like the tail section of the stealth helicopter used by SEAL Team Six in the Bin Laden raid and as one of Tony Stewart’s JGR Chevrolets was several years ago when NASCAR didn’t like what it saw.
Knaus is a bit of an anomaly in NASCAR. Name one other crew chief that is given the credit (or even recognized) for the success of a driver and race team as much as he has been since 2002. It’s usually the driver who gets the credit and the crew chief who shoulders the blame if things go wrong when a pilot is unable to produce. Not until Johnson won his fifth straight title did the driver start to receive due credit for actually winning these things; most attributed it to Knaus building a better mouse trap than his competitors — including the rest of his Hendrick Motorsports (and Stewart-Haas Racing) stablemates.
While improved safety was the initial focus when NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow was rolled out in 2007, it was also engineered to prevent the mangled and twisted bodies of the previous generation of NASCAR racecar. The Bizzaro World smeared and bent bodies were constructed to develop maximum downforce and sideforce while in the corners did not remotely resemble anything on a car dealership lot. These machines also required a substantial amount of time and dollars spent in the wind tunnel, money that has been long in coming since the economic downturn of 2008.
With the dawn of the second iteration of the CoT, the 2013 machines legitimately do look like their street-going counterparts, and in the interest of cost control and maintaining aesthetic integrity, further body massaging on NASCAR racecars will continue to be discouraged more than close contact at a high school dance.
Part of the allure and lore of NASCAR, that has been missing in recent years, has long centered on the trick cars and pieces that have actually been on the track in competition — and won. From Junior Johnson’s “Flying Banana,” to Bill Elliott’s 9/10-scale Thunderbird that dominated the super speedways of the mid ’80s, to Smokey Yunick driving his car away after NASCAR had removed the gas tank as a result of questions about its fuel mileage, it used to be the individuals who prepared the cars were recognized as much as those who wheeled them into Victory Lane.
That Knaus is routinely singled out for trying to exploit the rules and simply build a better car — some of which never even make it into competition — flies in the face of NASCAR’s efforts the last few years of returning to its roots, and getting back to the formula that worked so well in the past. He also seems to be singled out for simply doing a better job than his competition, which is to build faster racecars that win races and championships. If there isn’t a specific rule against it, how is it illegal? And if something is out of tolerance during pre-race inspection (key word: “pre”), and is then brought up to code, what is the justification for suspending the guy for a month and a half?
While fines and suspensions are bad enough, even more damaging is the 25-point docking in both driver and owner points, levied, putting Johnson in the awkward position of having -23 points going into the second race of the season. It has been a rough start to 2012 for HMS, with virtually every affiliated car suffering damage or falling out of the Daytona 500 (the exception, of course, being Dale Earnhardt Jr.).
So what does this mean for the No. 48 team at Phoenix? Is the season over before it even really started? Knaus and Malec will still be allowed to show up and compete until the appeal process runs its course. The potential for distraction is clearly evident, though, as these types of penalties for a championship-caliber team will likely overshadow anything revolving around Danica Patrick or Matt Kenseth’s second Daytona 500 victory.
It might also provide some foreshadowing as to the future of Knaus within the walls of HMS.
As the stress and friction of the 2011 season took its toll, Knaus took a rare vacation and extended time away from the shop prior to the start of the 2012 campaign, going on an African safari. Knaus’ time, effort and expectations of his team are legendary (and borderline obsessive compulsive). With as much success as he has had overseeing operations on the No. 48, might he want to pull back off the road and move into a leadership role within Hendrick Motorsports as a whole?
While a $100,00 fine is nothing to sneeze at — relative to sponsorship dollars, race winnings, exposure and championships that have been generated since Knaus and Johnson were united in 2002 — it is a pittance compared to what has been generated since then. But is Knaus going to tire of the constant hen pecking, suspension, fines and bad press that come whenever he tugs on a fender or is in the lab of his little shop of horrors trying to put together the missing piece for “The Fix for Six”?
In the end, should the suspension hold up and Knaus is sent home for six weeks, NASCAR might just have woken a sleeping giant. If he’s not at the racetrack, that simply leaves him more time to cook up new ideas of Lex Luthor-like diabolical proportions.
Follow Vito on Twitter: @VitoPugliese