News & Media

Remaining penalty lets NASCAR prove fine point

March 23, 2012, David Caraviello,

FONTANA, Calif. -- As far as NASCAR is concerned, its inspectors were proven correct.

"We believe very strongly in our inspection process, and are very proud of it, so the inspection process is status quo as we go forward."


That's the message the sanctioning body is taking from Tuesday's decision by the sport's chief arbiter to rescind almost all penalties against Hendrick Motorsports' No. 48 team for violations allegedly found on the car prior to the Daytona 500. But while Chief Appellate Officer John Middlebrook overturned a pair of suspensions and a point deduction, he left intact a $100,000 fine -- which in NASCAR's eyes, supports the belief that something was amiss with the vehicle to begin with.

"The elements of the penalty that were upheld indicate that the inspection process, or the inspectors, did their job correctly," NASCAR president Mike Helton said Friday at Auto Club Speedway. "I think the debate over the decision this week was more about the decision after that point and how we reacted to it, and that's as much a bureaucratic decision as it is a competition decision. So we believe very strongly in our inspection process, and are very proud of it, so the inspection process is status quo as we go forward."

It all makes for a somewhat confusing conclusion to a saga that began Feb. 17, when inspectors confiscated the No. 48 car's C-posts -- the pillars running from the roof to the rear deck lid -- during initial inspection for the Daytona 500. NASCAR ultimately determined that the C-posts had been modified illegally to help the car gain an aerodynamic advantage on the restrictor-plate track, and the ensuing penalties were severe: a six-race suspension for both crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec, a $100,000 fine to Knaus, and 25 points deducted from Johnson.

Hendrick appealed the decision, which was at first upheld by a three-member board from the National Stock Car Racing Appeals Panel. But NASCAR rules allow car owners one final plea to the Chief Appellate Officer, in this case Middlebrook, a retired General Motors executive who has a long relationship with Hendrick. Tuesday, in a stunning and somewhat unprecedented decision, Middlebrook overturned all of NASCAR's penalties except for the fine against Knaus.

Two years ago, Middlebrook also substantially reduced a penalty levied against Clint Bowyer's former No. 33 team at Richard Childress Racing. The Chief Appellate Officer is selected by the president of NASCAR -- which would be Helton, who on Friday stood by the man he chose for the role.

"When we chose John Middlebrook as our Chief Appellate Officer, we chose him based on our experiences with him for several years, and his pragmatic approach to business, and his relationships with race teams and with NASCAR," Helton said. "The reasons that we chose the current Chief Appellate Officer haven't changed. Our opinion and our belief in our Chief Appellate Officer haven't changed."

Penalties overturned

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

For Johnson, the ruling returned to him the 25 points he lost following the infraction, and moved him to 11th in Sprint Cup standings heading to perhaps his best track. He believed a big difference between the first appeal and the second was the format -- in the initial appeal, each side takes turns making its argument to the three-man panel, while in the final appeal both sides are in the room together and can counter one another's points. Even so, from the driver's perspective there was no vindication in the final outcome.

"I don't feel vindicated, because I feel like everything should have been overturned," Johnson said Friday. "I'm pleased that things went away, but I don't feel vindicated."

Middlebrook did not provide any reasoning behind his decision, which Helton said the Chief Appellate Officer is not obliged to do. That left many, including Johnson, wondering why Middlebrook left the fine intact while rescinding everything else. "We didn't feel the penalty was warranted in the first place, so we're just as curious," he said.

From NASCAR's perspective, that lone remaining fragment of the original penalty justified inspectors targeting the car in the first place. "I think the decision made this week upholds what's right and wrong when it comes to the inspection process and the things of the car," Helton said, "because there were elements of the penalty that were upheld relative to parts of the car that did not conform to the rules."

And if the No. 48 team comes to the next restrictor-plate race, at Talladega Superspeedway on May 6, with the same C-posts on the vehicle, would NASCAR react the same way? "I hope so," Helton said.

Informed of that statement, Johnson mustered a wry smile. "I guess this is one of those positions where we agree to disagree," he said. "Through the appeal process, we proved that those C-posts we legal. So that's where that stands."