Wednesday, February 29, 2012

NASCAR buries crew chief Chad Knaus and #48 team with major penalties

Jimmie Johnson, his crew chief Chad Knaus and the #48 team could not have started off the 2012 Sprint Cup Series season much worse.

Johnson wrecked in the Budweiser Shootout, wrecked on lap 2 of the Daytona 500 and now Knaus is staring down the barrel of a six-race suspension.

NASCAR announced penalties Wednesday for the #48 team that stemmed from a technical violation on the first day of Speedweeks Feb. 17 with the “C-posts” that run down the sides of the rear window. NASCAR officials determined the sheetmetal on those posts to be too rounded and had the team replace them, with the threat of additional penalties once Speedweeks finished.

NASCAR lived up to that threat and delivered penalties that include a six-race suspension for Knaus and the #48 team car chief Ron Malec, as well as probation until the May 9. The sanctioning body also fined Knaus $100,000 and docked the team 25 owner and driver points.

That means Johnson will head to the race at Phoenix International Raceway with -23 points after he finished 42nd in the Daytona 500, a full 70 points behind points leader Matt Kenseth. That’s no small hill to climb, even for the #48 team.

Johnson is now nearly two full races out of the points lead and he has only run two laps in the entire season. The #48 team is going to have to be patient and methodically work its way back to the front. This is not the type of hole a team can dig out of quickly.

However, Knaus and Malec will likely still be with the team this week in Phoenix. Hendrick Motorsports is going to appeal the ruling, and it could take weeks before their appeal is heard. In the meantime, Knaus and Malec will continue to lead the #48 team at the racetrack.

Don’t overlook the penalties to Malec. He is a very intelligent crew member and an integral part of that team. That penalty might be where NASCAR really stuck it to the #48 team.

Overall, the severity of these penalties were suprising. NASCAR found the violation before the cars ever hit the racetrack, so Johnson never had an unfair advantage in racing conditions. Still, NASCAR has precedent for this type of reaction.

Officials found problems with the front bumpers of Johnson’s and teammate Jeff Gordon’s cars during initial inspection for the 2007 race at the road course in Sonoma. Both Knaus and Gordon’s crew chief at the time, Steve Letarte, were suspended for the next six races, fined $100,000 and the teams were docked 100 points, although the points system was different in 2007 than it is now.

People will debate long and hard about whether the penalties for the #48 team were too harsh, too lenient or just right, and often that simply depends on how much people root for a particular driver.

It will be interesting to see the decision on the appeal. Knaus did win an appeal in 2005 to dodge a two-race suspension for the roof being too low on the #48 car. That said, appeals are rarely overturned and Hendrick Motorsports will likely have to dig deeper in its drawer of talented crew members to fill the void.

Although this is a horrible start to the season, do not dismiss Johnson from the championship picture. He has come back from some major points deficits before to win the championship, and sometimes setbacks push a great team to perform even better.

For example, Johnson won the 2006 Daytona 500 after Knaus was kicked out of Speedweeks and won the championship after overcoming a 165-point deficit with just seven races remaining.

These penalties won’t destroy the #48 team, but it does need something positive to happen this week at Phoenix. At this point keeping the car in one piece might be good enough.


  1. An obviously elite team with big money backing that seems to continually push the envelop and on occasion gets caught. As careful as NASCAR is to maintain a competitive balance why does Chad do this? Hendrick would have us believe they are completely innocent but if that's true why are they on the carpet? Nascar is picking on them? I don't think so...

  2. Dwindy1 - I don't believe NASCAR is picking on the #48 team. They've pushed the envelope before and been caught. This wasn't the first time, and as long as the #48 is still an elite team it probably won't be the last.
    It's going to be a long climb back to the top, though.