FONTANA, Calif. — Jimmie Johnson insists his car was perfectly legal at the Daytona 500, and he believes NASCAR’s chief appellate officer proved it this week by rescinding most of the penalties levied against crew chief Chad Knaus.
“Through the appeal process, we’ve proved that those C-posts were legal,” the five-time champion driver said Friday.
NASCAR President Mike Helton reached the opposite conclusion from the same process, and he points to Knaus’ $100,000 fine left intact by chief appellate officer John Middlebrook as evidence.
“That tells you that the inspection process was correct, and there was an issue with the car,” Helton said.
No wonder much of the garage at Auto Club Speedway is surprised and confused as they get back to work this weekend in Johnson’s native Southern California.
At least Johnson and Helton both feel it’s time to move on from the debate that could have ruined Johnson’s season shortly after it began.
“I guess this is one of those positions where we agree to disagree,” Johnson said.
Helton staunchly defended Middlebrook against criticism of Tuesday’s surprising ruling, rejecting presumptions of a bias toward Hendrick Motorsports. Helton also defended the autocratic nature of Middlebrook’s job, which doesn’t require him to give any rationale for his decisions.
“We believe the decision that was made this week supports the inspection process,” Helton said. “Because the elements of the penalty that were upheld indicate that … the inspectors did their job correctly. I think the debate this week was about the decision after that point, and we reacted to it. We believe very strongly in our inspection process, and I’m very proud of it.”
Knaus was fined and suspended for six races along with car chief Ron Malec, and Johnson was docked 25 points after the No. 48 car failed opening day inspection at Daytona. The inspectors visually determined the sheet metal between the roof and side windows had been illegally modified to create an aerodynamic advantage.
After a three-member panel unanimously upheld NASCAR’s penalties, nobody thought Johnson and the oft-scrutinized Knaus had much of a chance to successfully appeal that heavy punishment. Instead, Middlebrook put Knaus and Malec on probation through May 9 and restored Johnson’s points — yet inexplicably kept the six-figure fine.
“I don’t feel vindicated, because I feel like everything should have been overturned,” Johnson said. “Pleased that things went our way, but don’t feel vindicated.”
Helton made only a token effort to avoid saying he was surprised by Middlebrook’s ruling.
“I’ll keep my personal reaction to myself, because I’m the only one that will ever know it,” Helton said. “But I got through that in about 30 seconds to go on to the fact that we did what we felt was correct. Our inspectors did their job. We collectively made a decision on how to react to it, and the car owner has a due process that they can follow. That due process completes it all. We’ll go on down the road.”
Yet Johnson and Helton aren’t willing to budge from their opinions of the C-posts that caused all this trouble. Johnson insists they’re legal, while Helton thinks the same configuration could get the car pulled from a future race.
Nobody can make Middlebrook share his rationale for the decision, but his credentials and connections also are raising eyebrows in NASCAR. He worked for General Motors for 49 years before taking the $1-a-year job, and Rick Hendrick is a longtime Chevrolet dealer who spoke at Middlebrook’s retirement dinner in 2008.
Johnson’s opponents mostly muted any hard feelings about the decision while preparing for practice and qualifying, but the reversal of most penalties against Knaus clearly surprised many in NASCAR.
Kevin Harvick didn’t hear about the ruling on Tuesday, but he compared the surprise about the decision to the verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial.
“I wasn’t surprised, because nothing in this sport surprises me anymore,” the Bakersfield native said.
Although many drivers would have benefitted from an extra obstacle for Johnson, some see a bright side to NASCAR’s appellate process.
“I look at it as a good system that gives both sides the opportunity to present their case and present it well, in a good, balanced argument,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., Johnson’s teammate at Hendrick.
Knaus has had multiple brushes with NASCAR discipline over the years, but hasn’t been suspended since 2007. He has long insisted his conflicts with inspectors aren’t because of ill intent, but a determination to exploit every inch of the rulebook for undiscovered advantages.
Although other teams might not like it when Knaus finds those gray areas, Harvick agrees Knaus has the right to look for them.
“I still feel like the crew chiefs don’t need to be scared for their life every time they go through the inspection process,” Harvick said. “This sport has had innovation drive it for years, and I think the innovation is what makes it intriguing to people who work on the cars, and know about things that are going on, and try to make your car better than the other guys.”