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Smart Can Get You Into Trouble In NASCAR Today

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, March 15 2012

Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus took a big chance and are likely to pay a big price for it. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Erik J. Perel)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

Hendrick Motorsports will not completely win its final appeal of penalties leveled on it after Jimmie Johnson’s car failed inspection at Daytona last month.

Chief appellate officer John Middlebrook may reduced fines or shorten terms of suspensions or amend point reductions, but Johnson, team owner Rick Hendrick, crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec are not going to skate on this one.

This, of course, is not exactly a Kreskin moment. Everybody in NASCAR – including the folks over on Papa Joe Hendrick Blvd. – knows that the appeal of the decision issued by the three-member racing commission, will come up dry.

They know that because of the nature of the offense, historical precedent and to a certain extent, hazy degree, because of the checkered reputation of the crew chief and team involved.

The line between cheating and fudging in NASCAR these days is very thin. It is not precisely define by written rules.

But it is there. And if you are a race team and your goal is to be, say, successful on the track, you damn sure better know where that line is. And once you know where that line is, you had damn well better respect it.

Jimmie Johnson's bid to become Mr. Six Time could be in the hands of the chief appellate officer. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Gregg Ellman)

NASCAR, history tells us, will allow fudging in certain areas. It will let teams off with a stern look and a warning when it catches them going for a competitive advantage by exploiting a glaring loop hole in the rule book.

Take, for example, what happened back in the fall of 2005. During a weekend at Dover, NASCAR inspectors swooped in and confiscated shock absorbers of, yep, Johnson and Knaus.

A week later, NASCAR announced there would be no penalties. The shocks were taken to the R and D facility, broken down, examined, inspected and filed away. They were, reportedly, cleverly designed to exploit a loophole but not break the rule.

John Darby, Sprint Cup race director, would explain things to the media afterward by saying, “All the parts and pieces are well within the confines of the rulebook. However, the shock build – that is the assembly of the shock and what the shock is intended to do with that build – it’s not within the spirit and the intent of what our shock absorber rules surround. Simply put, we prefer that shock absorbers are used for shock absorbers, which is a device which controls the frequency of a spring, not to be a spring assist or a jack or anything else.”

The rule book, he quickly added, would be amended pronto.

And, Darby was kind of smiling when he said all that.

But then there are things at which NASCAR does not smile. Little sacred, hands-off, don’t even think about it areas.

In this, the Car of Tomorrow era, aerodynamics may be the most sacred.

Aero is sacred on this generation of cars because NASCAR has staked so much of its being in this.

The series has adjusted the COTs in response to team and, even, fan concerns – think front splitters, side rails, blade spoilers – but once those adjustments are made, they are absolutely to be respected.

Everybody in the garage knows: Tamper with them at your own risk.

The Hendrick team tweaked the C-post, which is the rear-most pillar between the roof of the car and the rear fender. The intent, apparently (none of my one college degree is in flow dynamics), was to redirect air-flow.

Whatever  the intent was, it was a mistake. NASCAR came down hard; Knaus and Malec suspended for six races, Johnson docked 25 driver points, Hendrick docked 25 owner points, big fines for most.

Apparently, Knaus and his team felt up to the risk. They stuck their heads in the lion’s mouth and rubbed their faces with pork chops before doing it.

All of this is not to say that justice was served. Innovation is one of the really, really attractive things about racing. Especially for some of us who grew up in the 1950s and ’60s; the golden era of hot rodding and modifying and shade tree mechanics.

One of the top moments of the year would be the opening day of practice at Indianapolis. It was a freakin’ party to see what Andy Granatelli or Colin Chapman or Roger Penske would roll off of the trucks in those days.

Innovation was, quite simply, part of the sport.

For good or bad, however, times have changed. Partially to keep costs down, partially for parity and the desire to keep mainstream fans happy, partially for show business – many America-based racing organizations have drifted toward becoming spec series.

There is a big part of me that says you have got to hand it to Knaus and Malec. These are two really smart, clever guys when it comes to making cars fast and it’s darn cool to watch them do their thing.

But they are also smart enough to know where that opaque line is.

And unless appellate officer  Middlebrook unexpectedly steps into the ring, the lion’s mouth is going to slam shut on them and falling into the sawdust and dirt could be hopes for a sixth-championship in the 2012 season for the No. 48 Sprint Cup team.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, March 15 2012
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