News & Media

Menzer: Appeals ruling goes only so far in court of public opinion

March 21, 2012, Joe Menzer,

In the end, process favors Hendrick, Knaus; court of opinion a different matter

CONCORD, N.C. -- During the nearly six hours of Tuesday's final appeal hearing before NASCAR chief appellate officer John Middlebrook, Rick Hendrick occasionally would emerge from a side door in the Research and Development Center.

One time, he offered a friendly wave to reporters waiting outside. Another, he smiled and told one that "it shouldn't be much longer."

"It's unfortunate that the perception out there is that we continue to bend the rules -- because we truly don't. "


He seemed relaxed, in a reasonably good mood. It was a bit of foreshadowing as it turned out.

It was another full 90 minutes before NASCAR officials and Hendrick finally emerged for good from the R&D Center to reveal that Middlebrook had rescinded virtually all the penalties leveled against the No. 48 Chevrolet team of Hendrick Motorsports following alleged illegal modifications to the race car more than a month earlier at Daytona International Speedway.

By then, Hendrick looked more relieved than anything else. And worn out.

The final verdict delivered by Middlebrook was decidedly in Hendrick's favor. Six-week suspensions for crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec: rescinded. Twenty-five point penalties for both driver Jimmie Johnson and car owner Jeff Gordon: rescinded.

"I'm just glad this is over," Hendrick said. "But at least there's a process. That's the way we look at it. Years back, we didn't have this. I think [the media] asked me last Tuesday why was I doing this, and it was because I believed so hard in the facts. And I can say that they went through the facts from one end to the other. You don't always have some of this information on hand at the race track. Hopefully this will be the last time I will be standing here, doing this."

Why the fine?

Strangely, all that remained intact from the original fines levied because of alleged tampering with the C-posts -- supports that run from the roof of the race car to the rear deck lid -- was the $100,000 fine handed to Knaus, who also remains on probation along with Malec until May 9. No one could really explain why that was, and it was mystifying indeed.

Kerry Tharp, spokesman for NASCAR, said it was because Middlebrook obviously still believed there had been a rules infraction. In other words, a crime had been committed according to NASCAR law. But if that was the case, then why was everything else rescinded instead of merely reduced?

Asked what he had been told about the fine remaining, Knaus replied: "You'll just have to get back with them about that. I'm not sure about that."

Asked the same question, a weary-looking Hendrick had much the same answer.

"Look, I'm so wore out with this," Hendrick said. "All I can tell you is that by the rule book, the car was legal. And I believe if that wasn't the case, we wouldn't have gotten this overturned. Beyond that, I don't know what the deal is."

In the end, though, all parties said they believed in the process. Tharp insisted that NASCAR had not necessarily made a mistake during the initial visual inspection of the 48 car called into question. He applauded the appeals process in which NASCAR's penalties initially were upheld by a three-member board before the almost completely opposite decision was reached upon final appeal before Middlebrook.

And Hendrick more or less agreed. He said NASCAR was "perfectly gentlemanly" throughout the whole ordeal and that, in the end, the appeals process worked precisely as it was intended to work. He brought photos and affidavits and detailed documentation noting that the car had been inspected on multiple occasions and that it had not been altered -- noting places, dates, times and comments by the people who had done the inspecting. He said they "all matched up real nice" and added that he appreciated the fact that he was granted the opportunity to tell the Hendrick Motorsports side of the story, whereas in the past that might never have been the case.

"I remember when I used to have to come over here and they didn't like the looks of our cylinder heads. We're way beyond that now," Hendrick said. "We had 60 motors at Daytona. I haven't had an engine dispute in 10 years, and I don't know how many motors have made it down the road in that time. There are ways to eliminate these things, and NASCAR is working hard to get there -- because nobody enjoys this.

"I think [Tuesday] by taking their time, by going date by date, piece by piece, you could see that there was no ill intent on our part. I felt that, by the rule book, we were clearly [in the right]. ... You know, when you're making these kinds of decisions and you're at a race track, it's kind of hard to make all the right decisions or the right judgments. But I felt from the very beginning that we were clearly by the rule book within the guidelines, and that the car had been seen multiple times and raced everywhere we raced [it] in 2011."

Presenting the case

Hendrick said he tried to keep his argument simple and to the point.

"My argument was simply that the car is out in plain view," he said. "The car went to the tech center. It was inspected at the race track. It was inspected at the tech center on multiple occasions. It was at the tech center as late as January, and the car had not been altered. We even had one of the NASCAR officials make a comment about the car being correct in the C-post and the template area. We had all that documented.

"I don't know how, looking at the rule book ... if an official says the car is right, the car is right. If it goes to the tech center and the car passes, it passes. If we have an affidavit saying it hasn't been touched, it hasn't been touched. So what's the issue?"

Now Hendrick and Knaus would like one more item rescinded from the court of public opinion. But this one is far more difficult than even the bone-weary process they just completed.

They are well aware that there are anti-48 and anti-Hendrick elements out there resentful of the fact that Johnson and Knaus teamed to win five consecutive championships from 2006 through '11. They are well aware that every time there is a question about the 48 car, folks are entitled to bring up the fact that Knaus has been penalized in some way, shape or form -- even counting this latest massive reduction -- a total of 10 times in his career (eight since joining forces with Johnson for a total of $272,000 in fines). One can even assume they even realize how bad it looked last year when Knaus leaned into Johnson's driver's side door at Talledega -- before the race -- and told Johnson he'd have to get somebody to knock the back end in a little if he won the race, implying that something illegal might have been done to it to give the 48 team an advantage.

Penalties overturned

SPEED's Steve Byrnes and Bob Dillner discuss the final appeals ruling that went in favor of the No. 48 team.

But they want the world to know that they aren't cheaters.

"I can tell you that the 48 car goes through technical inspection more than most people do because we typically run a little bit better and we're at the NASCAR R&D Center a lot more often," Knaus said. "I think I explained to you guys [in the media earlier] that I was pretty shocked at Daytona when this happened. We go to great lengths; it's been years since we've been in trouble. Years. It's unfortunate that the perception out there is that we continue to bend the rules -- because we truly don't. I think you can get with [Sprint Cup Series director] John Darby or any of the NASCAR officials and see that we go above and beyond to be compliant with what it is they want."

Indeed, it had been 2007 since Knaus had been in trouble with NASCAR over technical violations prior to this latest brush with the long arm of the law. By leaving the $100,000 fine intact, Middlebrook did not let Knaus get away completely untarnished this time, either.

"You can only live and die by the facts, as far as I'm concerned," Hendrick insisted. "I think we proved [Tuesday] that we were OK or [the penalties] would have been upheld. ... After Talladega last year, our 48 car was the random car drawn every week [for additional tear-down inspections at the R&D Center]. So it's definitely looked at more than any car out there. And if you go by the rule book, it says that everybody should be treated the same. It doesn't say just because you win you're going to get scrutinized more. ... I can understand other competitors saying, 'They're winning a lot, so let's make sure they're not doing something illegal.' I can live with that. We actually have accepted that.

"I want to say this: I have good relationships with everybody in that garage. And NASCAR has come light years. They have a tough job, trying to police that garage. And all we ask is that we get treated the same as everyone else. We don't look to get a pass on anything; we just ask that we get treated the same way. I think they proved that they have a system where if there is a mistake made, or if they didn't look at something they didn't have time to see, or if the evidence wasn't all there at the time of the [alleged] infraction, that there is a way to remedy the deal."

In the end, he added, everyone "spent a lot of time trying to get it right." That's vitally important for any sport.

As for the court of public opinion, that rarely can be controlled and it usually takes much, much longer to turn a tide that has been flowing in the opposite direction for years. Right or wrong, that's just the way it is -- and that's something Hendrick and Knaus will have to continue to work on if it's to change dramatically.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.