From Curtis Turner to Kyle Busch, NASCAR has dealt with them all
Brad Keselowski and Paul Wolfe traveled to The White House recently, as part of the recognition for winning the 2012 Sprint Cup championship. As it is, it might be the last time Keselowski and Wolfe do much celebrating for a while. NASCAR found the rear end housings in both the No. 2 and No. 22 Penske Fords to be “not within the spirit of the rules” – whatever that means.
Through the Gears: Four things we learned at Texas Motor Speedway.
Kyle Busch wins in Texas. (ASP, Inc.)
It’s hard to believe that last year Kyle Busch went a whole season and won just once in NASCAR’s top three series: Sprint Cup, Nationwide, and Camping World Trucks. Why? Two months into 2013, he’s on pace to win 28 times across the board, lead over 2,000 laps in Cup and shatter any Nationwide Series record he hasn’t already.
But it’s the average start for Busch this season, on the Cup side, that’s making the biggest difference. Armed with a league-leading 5.4-place average start, his latest pole became the crucial difference in a tit-for-tat battle with Martin Truex Jr. at Texas. That first stall, a huge advantage on any stop, got him out first on the race’s final caution and made the last few minutes a coronation for a man who’s come full circle. It was at this 1.5-mile oval one and a half years ago when a wreck with Ron Hornaday Jr. in the Truck Series got Busch parked, left sponsor M&M’s questioning it’s commitment and left one of the sport’s most aggressive drivers at a crossroads with Joe Gibbs Racing.
Now? As we awaken this Monday morning, it’s Hornaday involved in the middle of a Truck Series mess, accused of deliberately wrecking another competitor while Busch is sitting on top of the NASCAR world. Funny how things come full circle, right?
Let’s go “Through the Gears” on what we learned from a weekend in Fort Worth …
FIRST GEAR: Texas + Gen-6 = Tough Sledding
You know when the biggest story of a race weekend is a sponsorship issue that is raised before the start of the event, you’ve got a problem. Texas, while giving us some decent racing back in the pack, was every bit the snoozer Fontana was not. The Gen-6 car, credited for improving racing at intermediates in 2013, seemed to take a time machine that morphed it back into the Car of Tomorrow. The second a driver claimed clean air, it was all she wrote, as Busch and Martin Truex Jr. combined to lead 313 of 334 laps. The aero advantage was so pronounced, Truex admitted afterwards that dropping back to second was too much to overcome.
“The race was over when we got beat out of the pits,” Truex said. “The bottom was so fast for a couple laps and I was really worried, honestly, that I was going to lose second because Carl (Edwards) was on the inside of me. I was just somehow able to run (turns) one and two wide open and get him cleared. Just the guy that gets clean air is hard to get. It’s hard to catch (them) in 10 laps.”
Others, like Greg Biffle, used dreaded race-killer terms like “track position” and “aero” Sunday night on SPEED’s Wind Tunnel when describing their struggles to move through the field. Even a flurry of cautions for what seemed like nothing — only three of the seven were caused by accidents — did nothing to tighten a field that, at the 450-mile mark, had only 15 cars on the lead lap. It’s the latest reminder that the Gen-6 is not an automatic miracle worker; week-to-week, there will be some tracks where improvement takes time.
Texas is certainly one of those, which is unfortunate, considering its grandstand capacity produces a six-figure crowd. Goodyear would be prudent to hold a test there before the fall event in the Chase, to come up with a tire that has more pronounced falloff, produces slower speeds and helps reduce aero dependency. Too many drivers were running the same speed, lap after lap, with little chance of being able to gain on anyone else. That produces the single-file parade witnessed Saturday night that hopefully, fans won’t be victim to much more.
Penalties may be forthcoming for Penske Racing. (ASP, Inc.)
SECOND GEAR: Will the book be thrown at Penske Racing?
The next sign you know the race was a snoozer: the biggest story everyone’s talking about after the race involves a driver yelling at NASCAR over an inspection issue. That’s what Brad Keselowski did, going off in front of a crowd of reporters after NASCAR confiscated rear-end housings from his No. 2 car and teammate Joey Logano’s No. 22 before the start of the race. The cars barely made it to the green flag – Logano actually started from the rear after being late – and will likely be assessed heavy penalties that will negate the hard-fought top-10 finishes both earned.
"There's so much stuff going on … you have no f------ idea what's going on,'' was Keselowski’s heavily-reported, signature quote to the reporting scrum. "And that's not your fault and that's not a slam on you. I could tell you there's nobody, no team in this garage with the integrity of the 2 team. And the way we've been treated over the last seven days is absolutely shameful.”
Keselowski’s anger certainly trails back to Martinsville, where a poor official’s call that he pitted outside the box (questionable at best) cost the No. 2 team a better finish. In that race, the team clawed back to sixth and pulled off a ninth at Texas despite being a lap down for much of the race’s second half. But those results represent the way this team has had to fight from virtually the drop of the green at Daytona. Think about it: Keselowski starts his year meeting with NASCAR’s top brass after a controversial interview with USA Today. He then tears his car into pieces, during the 500, only to somehow claw back to fourth. Some reception for the defending champion, right?
Those small obstacles, whether luck or speed-related each week, make Keselowski’s second-place standing in points, along with a Cup Series best six top-10 results, that much more impressive. But feeling like you’re a step behind, as many of the Ford drivers have felt this season, can take its toll and that adds up to some of the anger we saw released Saturday night. What’s next? Expect a lot of comparisons to Hendrick’s Daytona penalties, from 2012 in the coming days which were mostly revoked on appeal; chances are, come Wednesday we’ll see that type of process unfold again with high-level fines and multi-race suspensions for both Penske Racing crew chiefs.
It wouldn’t have surprised me to see Keselowski get fined for his post-race comments (considering the Brian France reaction to Denny Hamlin’s public criticism of the Gen-6 car in March), but inexplicably, France noted in a Monday interview with FOX Business that no fines would be levied. NASCAR vice president and CCO Brett Jewkes reiterated the sanctioning body’s stance on Twitter.
THIRD GEAR: Keeping confidence high
That’s the running theme at several race shops after Texas left several teams wondering what might have been. Martin Truex Jr. was on top of that list; similar to Kansas a year ago, he had the car to beat only to wind up in second place. It’s now six years since the Michael Waltrip Racing veteran has won a Sprint Cup race (Dover, 2007) a drought that’s left him understandably at wit’s end.
“Shoulda, woulda, coulda,” he said. “It just hurts when you give them away.”
The pill is tougher to swallow this time considering Truex is in a difficult spot with the Chase. Already, he’s got more finishes of 36th or worse (two) than he had all of last season. Considering big-name talent resides outside the top 10, Truex has to be thinking “Wild Card,” and the next few weeks he’ll have a car that’s capable. Can he replicate his run at Kansas last April? Or will frustration lead to failure?
The same can be said for two Hendrick drivers: Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. Earnhardt, falling victim to a battery problem, had his second straight difficult week. Suddenly, he’s sixth in points, 35 behind the top spot and within striking distance of falling out. With only 47 laps led in one event, it’s not like the No. 88 has been running up front — and HMS has had its problems on intermediates. Gordon knows that all too well; he broke a suspension at Texas running third. Bad luck has him a disappointing 15th in points and battling other stars like Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman to climb back up.
“I’m pretty upset,” said Gordon, who watched a top-5 finish go up in smoke. “This team has worked so hard to claw ourselves back.”
The answer now is to keep clawing harder for both; there’s no more mulligans left on the schedule to place a “mental breakdown.”
FOURTH GEAR: Kyle’s tough road ahead
Third in the standings, 18 points behind Johnson, sits Kyle Busch, who one could argue has actually been the better driver in 2013. Between more laps led, 435 – 430, and better finishes on intermediates — the tracks that make up half the Chase — you’d have to think the No. 18 has the edge. But what’s frustrating about the latest cycle of dominance is it all means nothing under NASCAR’s playoff system. With a well-documented set of Chase failures dating back to a dominant eight-win season in 2008, it all means nothing if Busch can’t get it done in the last 10 weeks.
Will things be different in 2013? There’s still five months for fans to wait to find out. Not the best supporting argument for NASCAR’s current point system …
Bobby Labonte’s night got cut short early once the driver asked out with a stomach virus. But comedy ensued when the selected sub, Mike Bliss, was still running his No. 19 car on the track. C’Mon, JTG … with all the young drivers out there in Nationwide and Trucks you couldn’t pay for one of them to be on standby? It didn’t matter in the end, as engine issues left them in the garage 42nd. … A rumored sale of Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing comes at a bad time for Jamie McMurray. Sixteenth at Texas, he’s in the best shape since winning three major Cup races in 2010 and could be an outside Chase contender. But any type of sale will be a distraction that should dash those hopes.
Gordon/Bowyer Fallout, Harvick's New Home and Grading Phoenix
Photo by ASP, Inc.
NASCAR reacted this week to Jeff Gordon intentionally wrecking Clint Bowyer at Phoenix and the melee between the crews, but was its penalty enough? Members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council debate what should have been done and what they would do if Bowyer exacts revenge this weekend at Homestead. Those are just among a few of the topics the Fan Council debated. Here’s what they said:
What should NASCAR have done in regards to the Jeff Gordon-Clint Bowyer incident on and off the track? On Monday, NASCAR announced it had fined Jeff Gordon $100,000, docked him 25 points and placed him in on probation until Dec. 31. NASCAR did not penalize Clint Bowyer but fined Bowyer’s crew chief, Brian Pattie, $25,000 and placed him on probation until Dec. 31 (crew chief is responsible for the team). Gordon’s crew chief, Alan Gustafson, was placed on probation until Dec. 31. Fan Council members were asked what they would have done:
33.7 percent would have suspended Jeff Gordon for Homestead 23.3 percent would have issued no penalties at all 16.5 percent would have fined Gordon, Bowyer & crew members 12.6 percent would have done “other” 7.4 percent would have suspended Gordon and instigators of melee and fined Gordon, Bowyer and crew members 6.5 percent would have suspended instigators of the garage fight for Homestead
What Fan Council members said:
• Jeff Gordon needs to be suspended. And that is coming from someone who got into the sport because of him. Kyle Busch got "parked" for wrecking Hornaday at the Texas Truck race last year. Gordon didn't just take out Bowyer, he also took out Joey Logano and Aric Almirola, who had nothing to do with the feud. Fining Jeff won't do anything, since he’s earned more than just about anyone in the sport's history. $100,000 is chump change for Gordon. Sit him out.
• Boys have at it. ENOUGH SAID!
• Donate $50,000 to each of Jeff and Clint's charities and throw a ticker-tape parade in their honor for waking us all up from a season-long slumber and giving sports outlets not known for their coverage of NASCAR to realize it exists! At the most, I'd pick the "fine everybody" option. But I still say this is what NASCAR needed.
• I think what Gordon did was unacceptable and not appropriate at all. He should be suspended for one race with a $100,000 fine.
• Make Gordon and Bowyer pay the expenses for the 20 and 43 cars.
• Gordon is not one to do this type of thing often, the crew members were charged up and lost control and the melee ensued. I don't think that penalizing them will do any good. I'm not sure you could tell who the instigators were of that mess. Just let it be and move on.
• Gordon's blatant disregard for NASCAR's black flag definitely needs to be addressed. As well as whomever it was that "jumped" Gordon in the garage area. As far as Bowyer's alleged contact with Gordon on track, chalk that up to competitive racing — incidental and lacking true malice. To lie in wait, however, speaks to intent and the collateral damage that could have been avoided is inexcusable.
• Without a Kyle Busch-like rap sheet, I feel all they can do is put Gordon on probation. If Bowyer pays him back next year, then it's deserved ... as is probation at that time for him as well.
If you were NASCAR, would you be OK with it if Clint Bowyer retaliated and wrecked Jeff Gordon at Homestead this weekend?
51.7 percent said No
48.3 percent said Yes
What Fan Council members said:
• They did say "Boys have it" so I think Bowyer would be within his rights to retaliate.
• If I were NASCAR ... no. Drivers shouldn't use their cars to retaliate. As a fan ... you bet I want to see Bowyer retaliate. :D
• I don't really believe any driver should retaliate with their car. If you're pissed off someone ruined your day, when you get out of the car, go find them and settle it face-to-face, man-to-man, or fist-to-face. The fighting was the most exciting part of the whole race! At least Clint wanted to settle it right. As exciting as it might be to have him dish out some payback, I really hope he doesn't do it on track.
• I would be OK with it. Emotions ON THE TRACK are very good and needed in this sport. All anybody does these days is talk. People watch when there's controversy like Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick or Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards.
• Two wrongs don't make a right; someone will eventually get hurt.
• Premeditated retaliation at a high-speed track is unacceptable. Gordon's actions were heat of the moment. A calculated act carried over to another event should be a more serious offense.
• I would be fine with it. An eye for an eye, right?
Photo by ASP, Inc.
Rate Sunday’s race at Phoenix
54.4 percent called it Good 28.7 percent called it Great 13.7 percent called it Fair 3.3 percent called it Poor
What Fan Council members said:
• Any race that gets me to jump up out of my chair and go, “HOLY CRAP DID YOU SEE THAT!?” multiple times has GOT to receive a “GREAT!”
• A 10-lap crash fest does not make it a great race.
• A lot of excitement and drama ... still can't compete with the NFL, but I did have a split screen at the end and I watched the Speed Channel’s post-race coverage for the first-time ever.
• Fantastically old-school-style racin'! I know there's folks upset at how things unfolded, but c'mon, tell me you EXPECTED to see the melees that happened! It was a great race — even if two of my drivers in my pool were taken out as a result! Now THAT is NASCAR racing!
• The finish alone made the race worth watching. The Brawl. Epic. Haven't enjoyed a race ending like that since Harvick had his car wrecked by Shrub on pit road after the (Darlington) race.
• This is one I watched flag-to-flag. Even though Kyle led for much of the race, there was just so much going on that it held my attention throughout. With J.J. blowing a tire and the whole Clint/Gordon melee, this race was awesome.
• This is the race NASCAR needed! ^^^Ratings!
• This was a pathetic race which ended in a gang war. Punks will be punks whether in a back alley or a racetrack in front of thousands of people. This is a sport?
• A lady at work (casual NASCAR fan): “If every race was like (Sunday) I’d watch it every week religiously.” So, I think it was a GREAT race.
• I was in the grandstands. I always love being at PIR but watching the one driver I can't stand dominate most of the race makes it a very loooong race for me. I was so happy he didn't win. The Jeff Gordon/Clint Bowyer deal was very entertaining! Watching first Clint's crew running towards the garage, and then Clint running like crazy was awesome! The last-lap crash-fest seemed uncalled for. I still can't understand why NASCAR didn't throw a caution with Danica stopped in the middle of the track. Very eventful race and I'm glad I was there.
What do you think of Kevin Harvick’s move? Last weekend, it was reported that Harvick will leave Richard Childress Racing after the 2013 season to drive for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. Fan Council members were asked what they thought of the move.
52.5 percent said great move by Harvick 33.9 percent said move will hurt Harvick in the short-term but be good long-term 13.6 percent said it was a bad move by Harvick
What Fan Council members said:
• It's clear that Richard Chidlress’ only focus is on his grandkids and their future in Cup. Burton is only keeping the seat warm for one of them and Menard is only there because of the sponsorship money. I think Harvick desperately needs a change in scenery.
• I believe RCR is a sinking ship, so I think it's a great thing for Harvick to get out as soon as his contract is up. I think he will be able to get aggressive again and become the Happy Harvick we all know and love.
• It's going to hurt Harvick in the short term. I just would not like being in the lame-duck situation as a driver, especially for a whole year. I had Harvick pegged as a championship contender for next year. Now, however, I feel he'll have a very similar year to this season. Overall, this could be a great move, having two championship-caliber drivers at SHR will be huge for that team and not to mention can only be beneficial in Danica's career.
• 2013 will be a total waste of time for RCR and Harvick. Lame-duck drivers never succeed.
• Matt Kenseth is one of the few drivers that I know that could handle the lame-duck status with class. Kevin and RCR will implode toward the end of next year — sooner if they are not running good.
• I am a huge 29 fan and I was shocked at this news. I really wish that he would stay with Richard, but for an organization that is getting ready for his grandsons as flagship drivers (not that I blame Richard for doing this at all) I don't blame Harvick for wanting to join his friend Tony.
• Change can be a good thing. Harvick hit a rut before signing in 2010 and I think that giving RCR another chance then was good. Now, however, I think that a change will help give Harvick a renewed spirit.
The Backseat Drivers Fan Council was founded and is administered by Dustin Long. Fans can join by sending Dustin an email at email@example.com.
Please include the following information:
Name, city, state, Twitter name, e-mail address and favorite driver.
NASCAR's handling of drug issues leave more questions than answers.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
We live in an instant gratification society. Fair or not, Facebook and Twitter breaks the news of the world long before Brian Williams clears his throat and gets ready to report it on NBC. Groupon provides us with deal-a-day discounts, making cheap choices so we don’t have to search for them. Direct Deposit removes the need to go to the bank; YouTube keeps you at home instead of the movies. Technological advances are made with the concept that 21st-Century humans have run out of patience.
In some ways, NASCAR brass has finally caught onto the concept. The conversation about shorter races, while I’m in objection to it, has some merit; fans no longer want to sit on their couch for four hours when 1,000 entertainment distractions reside all around their doorstep – sometimes right inside the house. The sport’s evolution with social media, despite the controversy over the #NASCAR/Twitter partnership, gives its base instant access the likes of which its stick ‘n’ ball brethren would kill for. Despite an unrelenting mountain of criticism these days, there’s actually only two pieces of the publicity puzzle where NASCAR remains as Neanderthal as they come.
Too bad they’re the most important ones: penalties and drugs.
This week was another reminder of that, with more questions than answers to leave fans scratching their heads instead of discussing the consistency and timeliness of their decisions. Take a penalty on Daytona winner Tony Stewart, for example, who failed post-qualifying inspection the Friday before the race. Once he did so, the time was disallowed which, in certain circumstances, would keep the car from making the race altogether. But Smoke’s team gets a mulligan. As part of NASCAR’s exclusive “top 35,” which guarantees a spot on the grid to the first 35 cars in owner points, he could cheat as much as possible and still start the race from the rear.
Huh? That’s like Brian Urlacher getting a 15-yard penalty for roughing the passer but getting it taken off the board because he’s one of the NFL’s best players. In the end, Stewart used his 42nd starting spot to win the race, earning the maximum amount of points only to get docked six for the penalty in question. Six points? When subtracted from the total, that still leaves the man with the third-most points from the race itself, a compromise the antithesis of Goldilocks in that nothing feels exactly right. Some will say that since Stewart started the race with a legal car – it was fixed after inspection – there shouldn’t have been any consequences at all. Others, knowing the advantage these types of infractions can give a driver during a plate race, feel the book should have been thrown straight at the No. 14. Hendrick Motorsports crew chief Chad Knaus, after all, was threatened with a six-race suspension (ultimately erased on appeal) for a pre-practice Daytona 500 violation on his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet.
Or take the case of Danny Stockman, Austin Dillon’s crew chief who was suspended two weeks from the Nationwide Series after a post-qualifying violation of his own down at Daytona. For Stockman, it was the second violation that occurred during a probationary period but the first one didn’t result in missing time. Compare that to Kurt Busch, whose initial probation violation for cussing out a reporter — not a scenario that created an on-track advantage — resulted in him getting shutout of the racetrack, his ride, and a paycheck for a week. Confused? I’m sure. How in the world do these penalties compare?
Simple answer: they don’t. I’d love to point out these violations in the rulebook, educating you all, but in this age of transparency NASCAR doesn’t even have one available for public viewing. If I write down the answers (and I’m one of the lucky ones), even if the sanctioning body remains inconsistent you have to trust my responsibility as a journalist instead of looking up the text yourself – a next-step ability in this age of Wikipedia more and more people are expecting to legitimize the sports they watch. Gone are the days when a good ol’ boy family network can run things with an iron fist. Today, that’s a little too “conspiracy theorist” for a sporting audience that’s grown too smart for any secrets.
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That provides the perfect transition for the sport’s biggest whisper train heading into Loudon: drugs. AJ Allmendinger, occupying one of Penske Racing’s prized rides, remains on the sidelines this weekend six days after being “temporarily suspended” for drug use. What, why, how, where? Answers are quick to come in baseball, football or basketball, but require Sherlock Holmes to deconstruct the confusing policies of NASCAR Nation. As we all understand it, Allmendinger tested positive for a stimulant at Kentucky, above acceptable levels and according to NASCAR’s policies, making him an on-track danger to other competitors. Yet the ‘Dinger was not informed of the issue until the day of the race at Daytona, seven days later and ultimately pulled with less than 90 minutes to go before the driver’s meeting. The hasty decision left car owner Penske, an innocent victim, in such a lurch that he literally took substitute Sam Hornish Jr. off a TV stage in North Carolina and flew him in with seconds to spare before the event.
Why the lengthy gap between a positive test and the temporary suspension? Common sense tells you Aegis labs wasn’t working on Saturday morning, so that means Allmendinger may have had both qualifying and practice time with NASCAR’s knowledge he had been above elevated levels the week before. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. A “B” sample test, to be conducted at Allmendinger’s request may take “several days” and ultimately exonerate him from any wrongdoing. In the meantime, “privacy concerns” have kept NASCAR from revealing the actual drug in question while the full results stay pending. All we know is it’s a “stimulant,” which could be one of hundreds of drugs in NASCAR’s policy book that, again, isn’t available for public consumption.
To a point, I understand it. In some other sports, like the NFL, confidentiality agreements can often supersede public knowledge as to the specifics of what a player tested positive for. But at this point, the word “drugs” has dashed Allmendinger’s reputation to the point there’s no recovery (unless a massive public relations apology campaign stays connected to a “B” sample that comes back negative). Adding a specific drug is insult to injury at this point, as the damage, in a sponsor’s eyes and for a garage reputation, has already been done. Which means if the sport still has to go through the process a second time, leaving question as to whether the drug policy was violated, why can’t Allmendinger still be racing, pending appeal? The second you pull him, it’s guilty until proven innocent where the driver is fighting a losing battle to clear his name. And if the “B” sample does come back with a negative result, in opposition to the “A” sample, what does that say about the sport’s testing system as a whole?
Three years after the Jeremy Mayfield controversy, the most high-profile driver suspended for drugs until last weekend, you’d think NASCAR would have learned lessons from it all. Back then, there wasn’t even a specific list drivers were clear on concerning what drugs could trigger a positive test. The court battle Mayfield pushed, while ultimately a losing one, revealed sloppy handling of samples, a convoluted policy and confusion over the whole system. That left the sport with no winners, no matter how many appeals got thrown out. With public perception skeptical, that means the onus is on NASCAR to prove both the consistency and the quality of its drug testing. The next time something happened, it would have served the sport well to have all answers readily available, a clear public path from peeing in a cup to kicking a driver out as a showcase for how they’ve put all their ducks in a row.
But NASCAR did not. Instead, we’re heading towards Friday no clearer on Allmendinger’s future and ultimate punishment than we were the Saturday before. Fair or not, in 2012 that’s the opposite of what society expects. After all, people don’t want to spend their spare time feeling confused. It’s OK for NASCAR officials to feel that way in private, but at some point, their final decisions need to come back clearer, concise and consistent.
The National Stock Car Racing Chief Appellate Officer, John Middlebrook, reduced a penalty handed down by NASCAR to Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 48 team on Tuesday. Middlebrook rescinded the loss of 25 owner and driver points and the six-race suspension of crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec. The $100,000 fine remained in place.
You could forgive team owner Rick Hendrick if he now believes NASCAR really is an acronym standing for “Never Appeal Suspensions for Chad And Ron”.
Following Tuesday’s initial appeal before the National Stock Car Appeals Panel, the suspensions of crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec were upheld, one-upping five-time Jimmie Johnson becoming six-time — as in, out of commission for six straight races. While Hendrick was diplomatic and conciliatory, recognizing NASCAR for providing the opportunity to state his case, he was nonetheless steadfast in his commitment to further escalate the appeals process. When asked if he accepted the outcome of the board’s review, he was unusually stern in his response:
“I don’t accept it. Period.”
So what of the perpetual appeal process for unapproved C-post modifications that has gone on since the Daytona 500? Are Hendrick and Knaus fighting a battle they cannot win, simply delaying the inevitable? Or is it a bit of formulated “strateegery” in an effort to help maximize the first few races of the season and build some much-needed momentum in the likelihood that the brain trust of race-weekend preparation will be out for the same time it takes a broken leg to heal?
As we have come to recognize since 2004, it is never too early to start thinking about The Chase.
Think back two weeks ago to the race at Phoenix. If not for an uncharacteristic mid-race loose wheel pit miscue, the No. 48 team would have checked out, standing in Victory Lane, and nothing would have been written about Denny Hamlin’s newfound confidence or Darian Grubb being a war wagon Zen master.
Last weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in their sponsor’s Kobalt Tool’s 400, Johnson was snookered by quasi-teammate Tony Stewart on a restart with four laps to go, finishing second. Those two near-wins have catapulted Johnson — who was at –23 points just a couple of weeks ago — up to 23rd in the standings. While not exactly something the dynasty of the decade usually would rally around, it has brought the team to within 36 points of 10th-place driver Mark Martin.
This is significant for a few reasons. First, Martin is driving a part-time schedule and is taking this weekend off — which heading into the concrete mixing bowl of retaliation that is Bristol, is probably good news for Dale Earnhardt Jr. following their dust up in the closing laps in Vegas. The 10th-place position in points is of utmost importance, of course, as that is the cut off for marking the Chase after race No. 26 at Richmond.
Finally, 36 points is what is paid for finishing in eighth place. In the last six races at Bristol, Johnson has lead 694 laps and posted an average finish of 9.0. Factor in a bonus point for leading a lap, and you have eighth-place points for the 48 nearly guaranteed this weekend. The one anomaly during those last six Bristol races was a 35th-place finish at the night race in 2010. Even then, Johnson had led 175 of 263 laps before being turned into the backstretch wall by Juan Pablo Montoya.
A strong run at Bristol will provide much-needed momentum that will overcome the 25-point fine levied at Daytona, and should the final appeal be heard next Tuesday, Knaus and Malec will begin serving their suspensions during the weekend of Fontana when the series heads to the Auto Club Speedway. How has Johnson faired at what is essentially his home track in Southern California?
In the last eight races he’s won four times, posted two second-place finishes, a third and a downright shameful result of ninth in 2009. Safe to say, I could clamber up atop the box in Fontucky and engineer a top 10 for J.J. at Michigan International Speedway’s illegitimate sister track.
The schedule then winds back east to Martinsville, where the results are similar. Two wins in eight races with an average finish of 4.4. If he keeps the fenders on it and the curbs off it, a top 10 is a virtual certainty. Intermediate tracks Kansas and Texas follow where Johnson enjoys lifetime average finishes of 8.4 and 10.2.
Richmond would be the fifth race of the Knaus/Malec suspension, and may prove to be a stumbling block. The last eight races at the three-quarter mile track have produced an average finish of 16.3, although there is a 2008 win mixed in, and three of the last four visits producing top-10 runs. I know, “Oh the humanity!” Sub-par days for the 48 have most other teams buying a case of beer and fist-pumping into the wee hours of the morning. That said, if there is one race to write off in the final six, it just might end up being Richmond.
Or the next week at Talladega.
Always a crapshoot — and an even larger roll of the restrictor-plate dice than Daytona — Johnson traditionally finds himself involved in or triggering the requisite 30-car Alabama junkyard. No reason to throw in the towel though, as he is the defending race champion, Hendrick Motorsports doesn’t hurt for horsepower at the big tracks, and as long as he doesn’t get wiped out in two laps like at Daytona — and there are no shenanigans with the C-posts or calls to crack the back of the car — things should be fine.
That is, of course, if the big one doesn’t crack up the front of the car for him.
The six-week vacation for Knaus and Malec would wrap up following Talladega. In the meantime the duo will be able to spend a few extra days a week in their little shop of horrors, preparing new cars for the next races at Darlington for the Southern 500 and perhaps the most important event in the first third of the schedule, the Coca-Cola 600.
These two tracks are significant for a number of reasons. The Southern 500 has long been considered the second-most prestigious race on the schedule (until the advent of the big-money Brickyard 400), and while the Daytona 500 was the race the drivers wanted to win, crew chiefs and mechanics always longed to beat “The Track Too Tough To Tame.” After a month and a half off, Knaus and Malec will likely be itching to get back into pitched battle with The Lady In Black.
The Coca-Cola 600 run on Memorial Day weekend is the longest race of the year and puts the cap on two weeks spent at the epicenter of the NASCAR industry in Charlotte. It was the track that Knaus and Johnson once deemed “Our House” in reference to team sponsor Lowe’s, which once owned naming rights to the facility (and because the 48 won five of six races, as well as two wins in the All-Star Race). Going green just hours after the Indianapolis 500, it rivals the greatest spectacle in racing as the most important motorsports day in America, and is also the kickoff to the famed “Summer Stretch” of NASCAR: an eight-week grind that sees the series go north, west and south, comprised of intermediate tracks, a road course and the second restrictor plate race at Daytona.
It is during this time when teams find out if their latest generation of cars are up to snuff, provides an indication of who is top 10 material, and who will have to rely on pulling out a win to make the 12-driver Chase come September. If early-season performance has been any indication, the No. 48 team will easily qualify, as it has every season since the championship format was introduced in 2004.
If Knaus, Malec, Johnson and company should get their noses bloodied during Knaus’ and Malec’s absence, unable to overcome the 25-point penalty, they can still qualify for the playoffs on wins as a wild card. However, it is unlikely that will be necessary, and even if it is, is there any doubt this team could crank out a few wins if the entire might of Hendrick Motorsports was brought to bear?
As always, it is never too early to start thinking about the Chase. If the appeal strategy and timeline being followed by Hendrick and Knaus is any indication, they began thinking ahead as soon as they were pulled out of the inspection line nearly a month ago.
As if starting out the 2012 NASCAR season by getting turned mid-pack on the second lap of the Daytona 500, it was announced Wednesday that Chad Knaus, crew chief for the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, will be suspended for six races and fined $100,000 for tinkering with the C-posts of the car prior to qualifying for Daytona. Also on involuntary leave will be car chief Ron Malec, another key cog to the five straight championships Jimmie Johnson and team won from 2006-10.
Should the suspensions hold up — team owner Rick Hendrick has stated they will appeal the penalties — Hendrick Motorsports doesn’t exactly hurt for a talent pool from which to pull. It is rumored that a potential replacement atop the pit box could be No. 48 lead engineer Greg Ives, or Mike Baumgartner, former car chief on the No. 24 team of Jeff Gordon.
“Our organization respects NASCAR and the way the sanctioning body governs our sport. In this case, though, the system broke down, and we will voice our concerns through the appeal process,” Hendrick said in a statement following the announcement of the penalties.
Chief among Hendrick’s concerns (as well as mine): If what NASCAR found was repaired before the car went onto the racetrack, why are suspension being handed down? That’s akin to slapping a radar detector on the windshield, but never actually pulling onto the highway at 90 mph.
The C-post sheet metal on a Cup car is a manufactured and stamped piece that is produced for the teams, and in NASCAR terms, not something they encourage be modified and fiddled with — even though there were some cars during Speedweeks in Daytona that had similar modifications, though not to the same degree as the No. 48.
The way the infraction was discovered seems a bit obtuse, as well. While there wasn’t a stated specific rule against what was used, the first statement regarding the piece was that NASCAR “didn’t like how it looked.” Further explanation from competition director John Darby that NASCAR, “did some additional inspections with gauges and stuff,” which resulted in the pieces being cut off, replaced, and more in line with what NASCAR wanted to see on that area of the Lowe’s Chevrolet.
Which brings me back to my original point of contention, as well as that of Hendrick and many in the garage: If the part was never used in competition, was identified and remedied during inspection for the biggest race of the year, where really is the justification for such a staunch set of penalties?
Adding further fuel for confusion is the track history this particular car had established over the last year, having won a race (Talladega) and competed in three others. The car had also been taken to the NASCAR R&D Center for evaluation, where apparently nothing egregious or objectionable was discovered. There was not a statement from NASCAR that the car was ordered to never come back to the racetrack, nor was it confiscated and held for evaluation like the tail section of the stealth helicopter used by SEAL Team Six in the Bin Laden raid and as one of Tony Stewart’s JGR Chevrolets was several years ago when NASCAR didn’t like what it saw.
Knaus is a bit of an anomaly in NASCAR. Name one other crew chief that is given the credit (or even recognized) for the success of a driver and race team as much as he has been since 2002. It’s usually the driver who gets the credit and the crew chief who shoulders the blame if things go wrong when a pilot is unable to produce. Not until Johnson won his fifth straight title did the driver start to receive due credit for actually winning these things; most attributed it to Knaus building a better mouse trap than his competitors — including the rest of his Hendrick Motorsports (and Stewart-Haas Racing) stablemates.
While improved safety was the initial focus when NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow was rolled out in 2007, it was also engineered to prevent the mangled and twisted bodies of the previous generation of NASCAR racecar. The Bizzaro World smeared and bent bodies were constructed to develop maximum downforce and sideforce while in the corners did not remotely resemble anything on a car dealership lot. These machines also required a substantial amount of time and dollars spent in the wind tunnel, money that has been long in coming since the economic downturn of 2008.
With the dawn of the second iteration of the CoT, the 2013 machines legitimately do look like their street-going counterparts, and in the interest of cost control and maintaining aesthetic integrity, further body massaging on NASCAR racecars will continue to be discouraged more than close contact at a high school dance.
Part of the allure and lore of NASCAR, that has been missing in recent years, has long centered on the trick cars and pieces that have actually been on the track in competition — and won. From Junior Johnson’s “Flying Banana,” to Bill Elliott’s 9/10-scale Thunderbird that dominated the super speedways of the mid ’80s, to Smokey Yunick driving his car away after NASCAR had removed the gas tank as a result of questions about its fuel mileage, it used to be the individuals who prepared the cars were recognized as much as those who wheeled them into Victory Lane.
That Knaus is routinely singled out for trying to exploit the rules and simply build a better car — some of which never even make it into competition — flies in the face of NASCAR’s efforts the last few years of returning to its roots, and getting back to the formula that worked so well in the past. He also seems to be singled out for simply doing a better job than his competition, which is to build faster racecars that win races and championships. If there isn’t a specific rule against it, how is it illegal? And if something is out of tolerance during pre-race inspection (key word: “pre”), and is then brought up to code, what is the justification for suspending the guy for a month and a half?
While fines and suspensions are bad enough, even more damaging is the 25-point docking in both driver and owner points, levied, putting Johnson in the awkward position of having -23 points going into the second race of the season. It has been a rough start to 2012 for HMS, with virtually every affiliated car suffering damage or falling out of the Daytona 500 (the exception, of course, being Dale Earnhardt Jr.).
So what does this mean for the No. 48 team at Phoenix? Is the season over before it even really started? Knaus and Malec will still be allowed to show up and compete until the appeal process runs its course. The potential for distraction is clearly evident, though, as these types of penalties for a championship-caliber team will likely overshadow anything revolving around Danica Patrick or Matt Kenseth’s second Daytona 500 victory.
It might also provide some foreshadowing as to the future of Knaus within the walls of HMS.
As the stress and friction of the 2011 season took its toll, Knaus took a rare vacation and extended time away from the shop prior to the start of the 2012 campaign, going on an African safari. Knaus’ time, effort and expectations of his team are legendary (and borderline obsessive compulsive). With as much success as he has had overseeing operations on the No. 48, might he want to pull back off the road and move into a leadership role within Hendrick Motorsports as a whole?
While a $100,00 fine is nothing to sneeze at — relative to sponsorship dollars, race winnings, exposure and championships that have been generated since Knaus and Johnson were united in 2002 — it is a pittance compared to what has been generated since then. But is Knaus going to tire of the constant hen pecking, suspension, fines and bad press that come whenever he tugs on a fender or is in the lab of his little shop of horrors trying to put together the missing piece for “The Fix for Six”?
In the end, should the suspension hold up and Knaus is sent home for six weeks, NASCAR might just have woken a sleeping giant. If he’s not at the racetrack, that simply leaves him more time to cook up new ideas of Lex Luthor-like diabolical proportions.
NASCAR has suspended Hendrick Motorsports crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec six races for C-posts on the No. 48 Chevrolet that the sanctioning body did not approve of in pre-qualifying inspection in Daytona. Both will also be on probation until May 9. In addition to the suspensions, Knaus has been fined $100,000 and driver Jimmie Johnson and car owners Jeff Gordon and Rick Hendrick have been penalized with the loss of 25 driver and 25 owner points.
The suspensions will be deferred, however, until an appeal hearing is completed.
A statement released on Wednesday stated: "The No. 48 car was found to be in violation of Sections 12-1 (actions detrimental to stock car racing); 12-4J (any determination by NASCAR officials that race equipment used in the event does not conform to NASCAR rules detailed in Section 20 of the rule book or has not been approved by NASCAR prior to the event); and 20-2.1E (if in the judgment of NASCAR officials, any part or component of the car not previously approved by NASCAR that has been installed or modified to enhance aerodynamic performance will not be permitted -- unapproved car body modifications)."
A closer look at the NASCAR Rulebook reveals this about Rule 20-2.1E: "Streamlining the contours of the car, beyond that approved by the series director, will not be permitted. If, in the judgment of NASCAR officials, any part or component of the car not previously approved by NASCAR that has been installed or modified to enhance aerodynamic performance will not be permitted."
Hendrick Motorsports responded with a statement of its own, saying it plans to appeal the penalties.
“Our organization respects NASCAR and the way the sanctioning body governs our sport,” said owner Rick Hendrick. “In this case, though, the system broke down, and we will voice our concerns through the appeal process.”