NASCAR Wrestling with Awkward Realties After HMS Penalty Overturned

Decision to rescind some penalties, keep others, breeds confusion.

Decision to rescind some penalties, keep others, breeds confusion.

by Tom Bowles

Are you a NASCAR fan? No? Well then this first paragraph doesn’t pertain to you. But if you’re a diehard, I want you to do me a favor. Pretend you’ve never heard about this sport, that the only “car going in circles” you know is your weird neighbor who does burnouts in his Mustang around the cul-de-sac. For a moment, pretend you’re brand new, a stranger curious about the biggest NASCAR story to happen this year that doesn’t have a logo plastered across its chest.

Take a deep breath, lose yourself in the course of your imagination and listen carefully as a perfect stranger trying to understand both NASCAR and the Chad Knaus penalty that wasn’t at Daytona:

Once upon a time, there was a five-time NASCAR champion driving for the richest team on the circuit whose car came to his sport’s Super Bowl, the Daytona 500, for pre-race inspection. You see, before each stock car ever goes onto the trac,k inspectors look at them to make sure they’re legal, using all sorts of technical tools from rulers to a gigantic, alien-looking claw that gets placed over the car. But before this particular Chevy, driven by Jimmie Johnson, ever turned a lap, the inspector looked at it from a distance, and said, “Something doesn’t look right.” That’s it; no detailed inspection, no claw-like tool to measure its accuracy, nothing. Just like that, the car was deemed illegal without running a lick of practice (not the race … practice) and Johnson’s team was forced to “fix” it and bring it back into line.

This time, the car passed, even fitting the Metallic Template of Doom and there were no other problems for the rest of Speedweeks. What ran during the sport’s big race, the Daytona 500, was as legal according to NASCAR as that enviro-friendly Toyota Prius you’re your mother-in-law just purchased. But NASCAR was really, really mad those eyeballs seemed to see “something that didn’t look right.” So they penalized Johnson 25 positions, almost the equivalent to a regular season defeat in the NFL, and suspended crew chief Knaus (think head coach) and car chief Ron Malec (associate head coach) for six weeks. The team, which is often compared to baseball’s New York Yankees, was also handed a $100,000 fine.

As you might imagine, team owner Rick Hendrick (NASCAR’s George Steinbrenner) didn’t much like that and filed an appeal. The next “court of justice” was composed of three people, none of which had been involved with the inspection process and were, at best, vaguely familiar with the rules in question. After all, two had been retired from racing for several years and one never even focused on stock car racing during his career. But these people all thought the eyeball test was good enough, kept the penalties and forced Mr. Steinbrenner (er, Hendrick) to make a final appeal to the Stock Car Racing Commissioner, John Middlebrook. This man, a retired General Motors executive (Hendrick runs a GM car in the series) who’s also an old friend of Hendrick heard the appeal on Tuesday and, like magic, some of the penalties went away.

But not all of them. Armed with little more than a paragraph statement, Middlebrook removed the suspensions, gave back the points but kept the fine intact in the most classic example of “mixed message” you’ll ever see. These people were found “guilty,” then “not guilty” all at once a month after the initial inspection. When asked to justify the verdict… um, well, you couldn’t ask Middlebrook because he wasn’t available for comment. The hearing also wasn’t publicized, so despite Hendrick’s claims that other cars were allowed to fix similar pre-race inspection problems, we will never really know what happened behind closed doors, who those cars were or the details of certain evidence presented in front of the judge.

There you have it. All of the information above is factually correct, details of NASCAR’s main publicity last month while the NCAA found Cinderellas, the NBA trade deadline buzzed and baseball prepared for opening day. If you were a perfect stranger, unfamiliar with stock car racing, would you be turned onto the sport over all alternatives? Would you go, “Oh, I want to see what happens next”?

A few of you circus-lovers and Desperate Housewives aficionados might. But if I’m guessing correctly, most would snicker in the corner or wonder how in the world this is a sport in the first place. That’s painful to write, especially considering I’ve covered NASCAR for six years and been following for 22. But this series of events presents an awkward reality, making NASCAR and everyone involved leave the courtroom sporting an ugly black eye. For a sport trying hard to find new fans, let alone win the old ones back, it’s not the storyline it anticipated to start 2012.

Consider Hendrick Motorsports, which has had to deal with the distraction over the last month that ultimately shouldn’t have been at all (according to the verdict). Were they guilty? It’s hard to tell when you keep a $100,000 fine on the record, even if that’s the type of money Hendrick carries around in his shoe.

Whether it’s fair or not, Knaus, accused now half-a-dozen times in his Cup career for major violations, has the fresh stain of “cheater” written on his uniform all over again. Johnson’s five titles, by the conspiracy theorists, will again be called into question the same way people will wonder if Lance Armstrong doped to win the Tour de France. Legitimacy on the line is never a good thing, for any sport under any circumstance. How many people now think this team can buy itself innocence? (And for the record, I’m one of those that thought these penalties were too harsh.)

Next up are the NASCAR inspectors, whose credibility was questioned in the wake of an eyeball test that was ultimately deemed a joke by Middlebrook. Rumors of Daytona favoritism now run rampant, that these officials allowed some cars to fix the same problem without ultimately reporting a violation. Does that mean they have to ultimately change their pre-race procedures in order to be taken seriously? How quickly will NASCAR adjust? And will teams laugh at them or cry foul whenever a possible violation is pointed out the next time? Failure to enforce a penalty like this one might even leave inspectors more hesitant to bring a future situation up, for fear of another stain on their resume. They needed the backing of their bosses, and ultimately (although it came through appeal) it didn’t happen.

Then there’s NASCAR itself, whose appeals process is now under fire for both the time it took and the people involved. How could Middlebrook, whose ties to Hendrick go back 20-plus years, not recuse himself from the case? How could NASCAR, knowing the possibility of this penalty being overturned, not expedite the process, considering the seriousness of the violation so the final decision came no longer than two weeks after the initial one? Thirty-plus days later would be a slight problem if the consequences were handed out at Homestead-Miami this November … don’t you think? For a sport that seemingly held momentum in its hand after last year’s thrilling finale, credibility is now the issue of the day. Somehow, through it all the art of competition has been lost in a season of parity (four winners, four races) and an amazing Daytona 500 that included a jet dryer explosion. Ratings are down, as are attendance and this major story is a PR nightmare.

And there’s Johnson himself, caught in the crossfire when all he did during the Daytona 500 was get wrecked on Lap 2. Yep, with all this controversy, the car — with new C-posts — only made one full circuit in the season’s biggest race. Who knew a 42nd-place finish could script more drama than your weekly wrestling match, the type of manipulation the sport’s brass is being compared with as a joke, again, following another hardly believable series of events.

What a mess. I think, no matter what side you’re on, we can agree on that.

Follow Tom on Twitter: @NASCARBowles

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<p> Athlon Sports contributor Tom Bowles discusses the odd events surrounding the Chad Knaus penalty and how only part of it being overturned sends mixed — and confusing — signals.</p>

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