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Still no word from NASCAR's John Middlebrook on the Chad Knaus verdict, and confusion still reigns, though Mike Helton wants to move on

  NASCAR president Mike Helton: feisty in defense, but not very enlightening on the Middlebrook verdict (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern


    FONTANA, Calif.
   John Middlebrook is smack in the middle of one of the hottest controversies of the season for his judicial decision in the Chad Knaus/Daytona 500 case, but the long-time General Motors executive continues to hide from the heat.
   So here Friday it was left to NASCAR president Mike Helton, the man who himself appointed Middlebrook as this sport's ultimate arbiter, to respond to the still confusing situation.

   However Helton offered little more than just a staunch defense of both NASCAR's overall judicial system and inspection process.
   As to Middlebrook's offering no explanation of his strange Tuesday decision – overturning Knaus' six-race suspension and Jimmie Johnson's 25-point penalty, yet upholding the $100,000 fine – Helton said only that Middlebrook was under no obligation to explain anything.
   Johnson himself said "The reason we won our appeal is we proved those C-posts were legal."
   However Helton appeared to dispute that point, and said if Knaus and Johnson go to Talladega, the next restrictor plate race (May 6th), with those same C-posts on the car, his inspectors would once again order Knaus to rip them off and replace them.
     Helton's meet-the-press was not very enlightening about the reasoning behind Middlebrook's decision.
     It was yet another chapter, in the big picture, of a seemingly mismanaged/mishandled sequence of events that have riled race fans and raised significant questions about NASCAR's long-standing but still curious quasi-judicial system.
   And if this situation and the fallout is having an impact on fans themselves and their views about this sport, it is unclear if NASCAR executives themselves realize this.
   In a parallel point of view about cars and demographics in general – and this weekend's California 400 is played in the second largest market in the United States, and one of the world's major markets, so this is not merely academic – there is this article in the New York Times which points to some serious issues for NASCAR and its marketers to study:  http://nyti.ms/GMMJ5I .

   Helton Friday offered a staunch, unemotional, defense of the NASCAR judiciary, which has been upgraded considerably in recent years and is no longer just seen as a rubber stamp machine.
   "I hope you, particularly those who have been around for a while, see that NASCAR is trying to be more clear and precise…that there is less gray than in the past," Helton said.
   "But we realize there are different ways to interpret things.
   "We take very seriously our responsibility to regulate the sport….and that means you have to enforce it."

   Helton, despite the Tuesday defeat, was firm in his Friday response, if not adding much enlightenment about the debate.
   "We do not expect any changes to the inspection process," Helton insisted." Quite frankly I think the decision on Tuesday is in support of our inspection process.
   "We believe in our inspectors. We think the decision made this week supports the inspection process, because elements of the penalty that were upheld indicate the inspectors did their job correctly.
   "I think the debate over the decision was more about the decision after that point (of Daytona inspection), of how we reacted to it."
    Helton, though, said no changes would be made: "The inspection process is status quo. We defend our actions; we're proud of our inspectors. 
   "We're also proud of our professionalism when it comes to having a due process system that acts as a check-and-balance.
   "That process is now complete and we're ready to move on."
   NASCAR may be ready to move on, but it's unclear if the furor over Middlebrook's decision is over, or if confusion on the garage has been resolved.

   Some of his comments also indicated perhaps two points of view now over just how much 'transparency' the NASCAR world should have. Knaus' first appeal, to a three-man board, was conducted in secret; and his final appeal to Middlebrook was also conducted in secret. No transcripts, no public evidence.
   Some in the NASCAR hierarchy may be pushing for more transparency.
   If so, Helton appears to be pushing back. He pointed out the men on the 'judiciary' are listed each year in the rule book: "We don't hide a bunch of guys and gals in a room and pluck them when we need them."
   Indeed the list is almost a who's who, with men like former Goodyear boss Leo Mehl.
   Still, confusion still exists, as a result of Tuesday's decision.
   And there has been an odd issue raised here, of Middlebrook's long relationship, as high-ranking GM exec, with Rick Hendrick, one of GM's biggest dealers.
   Should Middlebrook have recused himself, to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest?
   Helton responded: "Let me answer it this way: When we chose John Middlebrook as our chief appellate officer, we chose him based on our experiences with him for several years, his pragmatic approach to business, and to his relationship with race teams and with NASCAR.
    "Our opinion and our belief in our chief appellate officer hasn't changed."
   However what to make of Middlebrook's steadfast refusal to explain his decision?
   "When the chief appellate officer is chosen, and given the charge of their responsibility, it doesn't include having to explain their decisions," Helton said.
   "If they choose to do that, they do. But they're not obligated to explain their decision."

   Part of Knaus' defense was that the car in question had not even gone through the body template room before it was declared illegal. 
   Helton's response: "The inspection process starts as soon as that car comes off the hauler…the first morning in Daytona."
   The only thing close to apology over the situation that Helton offered: "If there's a way for NASCAR to be more clear -- and we learn every time we go through a process -- we should, because we've worked very hard to do this."





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