Six-race suspension of crew chief Knaus overturned
CONCORD — NASCAR's chief appellate officer overturned on Tuesday the bulk of the penalties levied against five-time championship winning crew chief Chad Knaus, who still must pay a $100,000 fine because Jimmie Johnson's car failed the opening day inspection of the Daytona 500.
Chief appellate officer John Middlebrook overturned the six-race suspensions NASCAR handed down to Knaus and car chief Ron Malec, and ruled both instead will be on probation through May 9.
Middlebrook also reinstated the 25 points that Johnson had been docked. The decision moves Johnson to 11th in the Sprint Cup standings heading into Sunday's race at California.
"It's been a tough 30 days," Knaus said. "It's not about vindication. It's time to move on."
Johnson, who earned his first career victory at California in 2002, was ready to get on with the season. He was told by Knaus via text message about the ruling.
"I'm glad this is over; now it's on to Cali," he posted on Twitter.
Knaus and Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick have maintained the No. 48 Chevrolet was not illegal when it was presented for inspection Feb. 17 at Daytona. NASCAR used a visual inspection to determine the sheet metal between the roof and the side windows had been illegally modified to give Johnson an aerodynamic advantage.
The car was never sent through NASCAR's templates, and the team maintained it had not been altered since it was approved in January at NASCAR's R&D Center. Hendrick also said he had paperwork showing the car was exactly the same as it was following Johnson's win last April at Talladega.
"My argument was simply that the car is out in plain view. The car went to the tech center. It was inspected at the race track. It was inspected at the tech center on multiple occasions, and it was at the tech center as late as January. And the car had not been altered," Hendrick said. "We even had one of the NASCAR officials make comments about the car being correct. We had all that documented.
"I think by going piece-by-piece, date-by-date, you could see there was no ill intent by our part. ... Our car was approved."
Both Knaus and Hendrick seemed relieved rather than jubilant following Tuesday's ruling. They both said they were stunned a week ago when a three-member panel unanimously upheld all of NASCAR's penalties. That, not Middlebrook's ruling, was the most surprising part of the process.
Still, both maintained the car never should have been ruled illegal.
"I was pretty shocked in Daytona when this happened. We go through great, great lengths, and it's been years since we've been in trouble. Years," Knaus said. "It's unfortunate that the perception is out there that we continue to bend the rules, because we truly don't. We go above and beyond to be compliant with what they want.
"And I was shocked. I was really, really shocked. And I was pretty torn up, because I felt like we did everything in our power to build the best race car we could for the Daytona 500 and take it down there without any problems."
Middlebrook was not made available to reporters following his decision. Knaus, Hendrick nor NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp could explain why the arbitrator left intact the $100,000 fine.
"I am sure the chief appellate officer has his reasons," Tharp said. "He heard both sides, and it's his prerogative to make those decisions. It's part of the process."
Sprint Cup Series director John Darby presented NASCAR's case to Middlebrook. Unlike a week ago, when each side presented their arguments separately, Hendrick Motorsports and NASCAR were in the room together with Middlebrook.
"I think the forum today was a little bit better. It allowed us to get us in the same room with the NASCAR personnel and discuss what happened, and the appeal committee was able to hear both sides of the story at the same time," Knaus said. "There's two sides to every story: There's my side, NASCAR's side and the truth always falls in the middle somewhere.
"Today we did a good job to make sure the truth was laid out there for everybody."
Middlebrook is NASCAR's final arbitrator. He retired in 2008 after 49 years with General Motors and is paid $1 a year by NASCAR for the position he took over at the start of the 2010 season.
In three previous rulings, he had rescinded but not overturned entire penalties.
Hendrick, a longtime Chevrolet dealer and partner in NASCAR and one of six people who spoke at Middlebrook's retirement dinner, thought Tuesday's process was fair.
"I think he's very smart, and he's very detailed," Hendrick said. "We were not talking to someone who doesn't understand how a car is built, and he's read the rulebook."
Knaus has been in trouble before with NASCAR and has served three previous suspensions. He had a two-race suspension in 2005 reduced to probation on appeal.
His last suspension was six races in 2007 for an infraction found at Sonoma.
He long has argued that he's not an outright cheater, and his infractions have been cases of Knaus finding loopholes in the rulebook or exploiting gray areas. With his five championships, he's considered one of the greatest crew chiefs in NASCAR history. But he reiterated Tuesday that he's not concerned about his reputation.
"It is what it is," he said. "I am not really worried about my reputation; I'm worried about winning races for Hendrick Motorsports. If people don't like the way we do it or what's happened in the past, that's sad.
"I don't like personal digs, because this is a business, this is a sport, but that's the way it is."