Chad Knaus (R) and Jimmie Johnson, December 2010, celebrating their fifth championship (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Well, during his five straight championship seasons with Jimmie Johnson, Knaus has developed the reputation of a classic repeat offender.
And it was that trick side window at Daytona during the lead-up to the Daytona 500 that is one of the most famous.
But, hey, that was 2006.
Five years ago.
That time Knaus was suspended four weeks and docked points....and Johnson, with Darian Grubb filling in atop the pit box, went on to win the Daytona 500.
So the team went to the next track to the good. And Johnson and Knaus went on to win the first of those five in a row Sprint Cup titles.
But times have changed.
This time Johnson crashed the first lap of the 500, caught up in someone else's mistake. So Wednesday's 25-point penalty on the team for that C-post issue during pre-race Daytona inspection means Johnson and the team go to Phoenix this week 23 points in the hole.
In the grand scheme of things, for a team as powerful as Johnson-Knaus-Hendrick that's not that big a hole.
Car chief Ron Malec (L) and Chad Knaus reworking the questioned C-post of Jimmie Johnson's Daytona 500 car (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
...times have changed perhaps in another sense too: the focus of this particular debate may be on something quite different than just the issue of some sheet metal questions.
The big question here should be the larger issue of why should NASCAR be penalizing a team for an issue brought up in the initial at-track inspection.
Yes, NASCAR has long answered this question with the standard answer that a team is responsible for presenting a 'legal' car, period.
Logically, though, if NASCAR has an issue with a car in its very first inspection, before that car even gets out on the track, the rule should be 'no harm, no foul.' Unless of course something egregious is uncovered.
Putting this point in stark relief is the Daytona issue that involved Clint Bowyer -- his car was inspected as too low on the left-front after Daytona 500 qualifying. After. Bowyer's penalty was to have to start at the rear of the field for the 150s, and no more.
Now being too low in the NASCAR inspection station has, over the years, been considered a major offense, regardless of what might have broken. Remember Rusty Wallace's clearly broken shock at Sonoma, which cost him a $25,000 penalty.
The story here, though, is not the no-call on Bowyer, but rather the disparity between 'justice' for him and 'justice' for Knaus.
There is, of course, the sense in the stock car garage that officials might not be penalizing Knaus directly for the Daytona flap, but rather for his cryptic comment to Johnson pre-race at Talladega last fall to 'crack the rear' by backing into the wall in post-race celebration if he were to win. The point Knaus was making that he didn't want to get a penalty for missing the height sticks in any post-race inspection there, during the playoffs. No question was raised that there was any issue with Johnson's car, it should be pointed out.
NASCAR couldn't officially penalize Knaus for his Talladega comments, but it did require him to ship his car back to the Charlotte R&D center after every race the rest of the season, for teardown.
Chad Knaus (C) sometimes feels like NASCAR's poster boy for public whippings. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The NASCAR penalty this time on Knaus was a six-week suspension, and a similar suspension for car chief Ron Malec. It is being appealed, so they can still work the Phoenix race.
On its face the penalties don't seem particularly out of line with others.
However, when Rick Hendrick, the team owner, says the system is "broken" he may well have a point. (Hendrick insists the car in question ran in all four Daytona-Talladega races last season and passed every NASCAR inspection and had not been changed since.)
Now NASCAR may have a legitimate point in such strict pre-race inspections, for fear of being inundated with cars stuffed with various tricks that crew chiefs might want to try to slip by with. However, all NASCAR has to do in response is to issue stiff penalties for whatever might be found in ensuing inspections.
But for a team as large as Hendrick's, leaving the official crew chief at home for a month or so might be a decided plus, more so of course than for a much smaller team, like say Robby Gordon's. Johnson will do very, very well with whoever is atop the box; and there is always the cell phone.....
A significant issue in all this, which NASCAR cursory dismissed that Friday, is why doesn't the sanctioning body simply inspect every Daytona 500 car at the high-tech R&D shop near Charlotte Motor Speedway in the weeks before SpeedWeeks opens?
The R&D center, climate-controlled, is the perfect place for such inspections, with all the laser technology and such that is available.
NASCAR should do its initial Daytona 500 inspections at that R&D center, then certify the cars and take a detailed 'laser' picture of each and 'seal' them, and ship them down to Daytona.
Not only would that be preferable to the lengthy, boring pre-qualifying inspections at Daytona, but it could cut at least a full day, maybe two, from the incredibly long SpeedWeeks, saving teams money. Any fans who want to watch the rigmarole will have several other such opportunities.
NASCAR's John Darby: perhaps time to rethink the Daytona inspection process? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
And perhaps this Knaus flap should trigger a reinspection of the entire SpeedWeeks schedule, which is bloated with hours and even days of downtime, for no good reason.
SpeedWeeks clearly needs to be tightened up. (Should we raise the issue here of moving the twin 150s to the Sunday before the 500, to put more fans in the stands that this current better-of-two laps does?) When the Daytona 500 stretches out till Tuesday morning, a full 14 days after the stock car gang first arrived in town, something needs to be reviewed.
Now Knaus' appeal.
And what to watch for here?
Fortunately under George Silberman's rule, the appeals process has become much more legitimate.
Yes, it might be nice, and more American, for the appeals 'jury' to include some 'peers.' However Silberman typically puts together a three-man panel that is highly acceptable overall, and rarely questioned anymore for coming to logical conclusions.
And if Knaus and Hendrick want to appeal from the three-man jury, they'll go of course to the final arbiter, John Middlebrook, the former GM exec who has been the final authority since 2010. However Middlebrook would be unlikely to overturn; the number of times in NASCAR history that a penalty has been overturned upon such final appeal can be shown on just one hand.
Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, which at times issues a decision in order to make a broader point, the NASCAR appeals process is generally just concerned with the single case at hand, and not any broader issues.
Why? Because the NASCAR president himself must sign off on any penalty, to begin with.
Little wonder the question of 'rubber-stamping' through the appeals process is invariably raised.
Footnote to all this:
Maybe the real question should be Johnson's poor performance now in six straight Daytona 500s. He finished 42nd in this one, following finishes of 27th in 2011, 35th in 2010, 31st in 2009, 27th in 2008, and 39th in 2007.
In fact over their last 12 Daytona races since that 500 victory six years ago, Johnson and Knaus have had a miserable record -- a stunning average finish of 26th.
That's probably more on Knaus' mind today than a six-week vacation....
Knaus and Johnson, their last win together, Kansas City, last fall (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)