Published March 13, 2012
| Associated Press
CONCORD, N.C. – The crew chief for five-time champion Jimmie Johnson lost his appeal Tuesday challenging penalties for failing the opening day inspection at the Daytona 500.
The three-member committee heard testimony from Hendrick Motorsports and NASCAR, then ruled unanimously in favor of the sanctions against Chad Knaus.
NASCAR said Knaus presented a car that had illegally modified sheet metal between the roof and the side windows. Knaus maintains NASCAR made that determination with a visual inspection, the No. 48 Chevrolet never even made it to the templates at Daytona, and the car had been used at all four restrictor-plate races in 2011.
Team owner Rick Hendrick said the team will appeal to the National Stock Car Racing chief appellate officer, and Knaus will work this weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway during the appeal process.
"I don't accept it," Hendrick said outside NASCAR's R&D Center. "Period."
Knaus was suspended six races and fined $100,000; Johnson was docked 25 points; and car chief Ron Malec also was suspended six races.
Knaus' appeal was heard by former USAC chairman John Capels, former Indy Racing League and Goodyear executive Leo Mehl and Dale Pinilis, operator of Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem.
"I'd say these guys were very capable people," Hendrick said. "It's just hard to have someone try to digest everything that you have to digest in this situation."
Still, Hendrick "applauded" NASCAR for allowing an appeals process.
"From the days I started in this sport, from what I had to deal with until today, NASCAR has made tremendous strides," Hendrick said. "None of us want to have to go through this, but sometimes you just disagree, and this is one of those cases."
The next step for Knaus is a hearing before John Middlebrook, who was appointed in early 2010 as the final judge in NASCAR's appeals process.
"Of course, we are disappointed that the outcome was the way it was, but we're going to go ahead to the next level and present our case one last time," Hendrick said. "We're just onward and upward. We'll go to Bristol and try to get (win) No. 200, and we'll deal with this when the time comes."
Middlebrook, who earns $1 a year in this job, retired in 2008 after 49 years with General Motors.
His first case came in late 2010 when Richard Childress Racing appealed a championship-crippling 150-point penalty against Clint Bowyer. Middlebrook did not reinstate Bowyer's points but reduced crew chief Shane Wilson's suspension from six races to four, and cut his fine from $150,000 to $100,000.
Hendrick, a longtime Chevrolet dealer and partner in NASCAR, vouched for Middlebrook before the Childress appeal. Hendrick, who has known Middlebrook for more than 20 years, was one of six people who honored the executive in his 2008 retirement ceremony.
"There's just no agenda with him. He's beyond being swayed," Hendrick said in 2010.
A reduction in races suspended is probably the best-case scenario for Knaus, who has a long record of testing the patience of the NASCAR inspectors.
This is his fourth suspension dating to 2001, the year before he was paired with Johnson at Hendrick Motorsports. A two-race suspension in 2005 was reduced on appeal to 90 days probation.
Knaus has actually stayed out of trouble with NASCAR since 2007, when he was suspended six races for flaring out the front bumpers of Johnson's car at Sonoma. As in this instance, the infraction was caught in a pre-race inspection. In both cases, Knaus was allowed to stay at the event until penalties were levied a week later.
His long rap sheet has divided fans. Many view Knaus as an unabashed cheater; others see him as a masterful innovator constantly pushing the limits of NASCAR's rule book.
Knaus said two weeks ago he doesn't much care what anyone thinks of him.
"As far as my reputation goes, I'm not too concerned about that," he said. "What we want to do is go out there and do the best thing we can for Hendrick Motorsports, the best thing for (sponsor) Lowe's and try to win races and championships."
He is regarded as one of the greatest crew chiefs in NASCAR history, guiding Johnson to a record five-straight championships and 53 victories since the two were paired in 2002. Knaus is not credited with two other victories Johnson earned while Knaus was suspended, including the 2006 Daytona 500.
Knaus had been kicked out of SpeedWeeks by NASCAR in 2006 for alterations found on the car following Johnson's qualifying lap.
Despite this controversial start to the season — which comes after Johnson finished a career-worst sixth in the Sprint Cup standings last season — Knaus has been determined to keep Johnson moving toward the front of the field.
He guided Johnson to a fourth-place finish at Phoenix and a second-place finish at Las Vegas. The finishes have boosted Johnson from 43rd in the standings following Daytona to 23rd.