Before the start of yet another Sprint Cup season, Chad Knaus, crew chief for Hendrick Motorsports and driver Jimmie Johnson, is again in the news leading up to NASCAR’s most prestigious race, the Daytona 500. But it’s not a story about the glory of winning on the high banks of Daytona International Speedway in storybook fashion. It’s about trying to find ways to make a car go faster outside of NASCAR’s rules. Once again, the No. 48 Hendrick Chevrolet failed inspection and once again, team owner Rick Hendrick and his officials have to explain what went wrong with their most successful team. Knaus is ultimately responsible for every car used on the 36-race schedule. The Daytona Chevrolet was found illegal by NASCAR officials last Friday when it didn’t meet body specifications, specifically those around the pillars at the space between the rear window and the side window. Body modifications are pretty high on NASCAR’s list of villainy – especially at Daytona. This is not the first time Knaus has faced NASCAR judgment. He was accused of disregarding the rulebook after Johnson’s 2006 Daytona 500 qualifying run. Knaus made an illegal adjustment to the rear window, which resulted in his suspension for several races. Despite the loss of his crew chief, Johnson won the 500 that year, as well two of the first three races overall with interim crew chief Darian Grubb, who is now Denny Hamlin’s crew chief. Knaus was again at the center of controversy during the road race debut of NASCAR’s “Car of Tomorrow” on June 23, 2007 at Infineon Raceway. He and Steve Letarte, then crew chief for Jeff Gordon, brought cars that fit the templates, but NASCAR officials questioned the shape of the fenders in between the template’s measuring points. Johnson was not allowed to qualify the car, and he started at the back of the field. Knaus was fined $100,000 and was suspended for six races. Knaus faces penalties and possibly another suspension; but that decision will be made Tuesday after the winner of the 500 has been crowned. Knaus will be able to call the shots atop of the pit box Sunday – but he may not need to pack his suitcase for upcoming events. After NASCAR determined the C-posts on Johnson’s car were modified outside of legal measurements, websites were abuzz in disbelief. The C-posts are the body panel of the car that runs from the rear of the roof to the deck lid. NASCAR officials had the C-posts cut off the car during inspection Friday and the team fashion new ones and replaced them. Even though frowned upon when teams search for advantages in what’s known as “gray” areas of the car, some may fall into a “questionable” category. But the pieces confiscated off of Johnson’s Chevrolet were not under scrutiny of template rules, which makes the violation seemingly even more blatant.
When NASCAR officials begin the inspection process, they have a routine they follow. It goes over a car from top to bottom through numerous top templates joined together that have been dubbed, “the claw.” The C-pillars, the areas between the top and rear deck lid, were not part of the template process but were measured nonetheless and discovered to be in violation. NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Director John Darby addressed the situation with media members assembled at the rear of the NASCAR hauler in Daytona’s garage area. It wasn’t he first time Knaus has been Darby’s topic of conversation. “There were obvious modifications that the template inspectors picked up on and did some additional inspections with some gauges and stuff and found they were too far out of tolerance to fix so they were removed from the car,” Darby said. “It falls in line with other body modifications we’ve seen in the past. We’re pretty serious about the body configurations of the cars for all the right reasons, and this was a modification that had been made to the car that put it outside that box.” Darby said the infraction would be treated like other body modifications. In the past, penalties for body infractions could be as much as the loss of 25 points under the current point system. The question that millions of race fans, as well as those in the garage area have been asking, with NASCAR so incredibly strict about following its rulebook to the letter, why would any team, especially a championship-caliber team, take such a risk that is clearly in violation? Additionally, some longtime NASCAR mechanics have questioned what modifications to the C-pillars would offer. The change would supposedly add down force but at this point, all it offers is a certain fine, a possible suspension of Knaus and more – not to mention bad press. The parts were on display Friday afternoon at the NASCAR transporter, something done any time illegal equipment is removed from any of the teams. The No. 48 team was allowed to repair the area to make it conform to requirements, but the illegal parts were taken to NASCAR’s Research and Development Center in Concord, N.C., for further review. Interestingly, the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets driven by Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon all passed inspection. The cars are built individually by the direction of the crew chief and are not identical. Each of the three other cars was allowed to race. There are some in the sport who feel the NASCAR rulebook is a place to start as a baseline for bending the rules in hopes of finding some type of advantage. Their argument is that with the competition so incredibly close it’s the only way to finish at the front. But the bad press generated when caught does nothing but shame the team, shame the driver – who most likely doesn’t know his car is illegal – and most importantly, shame the corporate sponsors who spend incredible amounts of money to support them. Sadly, the reputations of everyone associated with the specific team caught for infractions are tainted. Some believe sponsors associated with the organization condone such behavior – which couldn‘t be further from the truth. Fans may also wonder about the legitimacy of past wins and championships when rules are clearly broken. And, using the No. 48 team and Knaus as an example, there will always be questions as to how honestly a team operates after being caught for infractions time after time. In short, no one wins when established rules are deliberately broken. It’s a bad practice that, obviously, shouldn’t be accepted. Thankfully, we know, and have known, that NASCAR doesn’t tolerate tampering with its rules. And it has applied stringent punishments to let us all know that is, indeed, the case.