Upheld penalty begs the question: Is Knaus too much of a liability?
A panel upheld severe penalties against crew chief Chad Knaus and No. 48 team
Penalties included 6-race suspension for Knaus and 25-point deduction for Johnson
Decision isn't final, but Hendrick might decide they're better off without Knaus
The most important event of the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season won't happen on the racetrack. Rather, behind closed doors in a conference room, officials will decide whether the preseason favorite for the Cup title will be severely handicapped going forward.
On Tuesday, a National Stock Car Racing Appeals Panel upheld the penalties assessed to Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 team at the NASCAR Research and Development Center in Concord, N.C., meaning Johnson's crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec are one step closer to being suspended for six races.
But the decision isn't final yet. Shortly after the three-member panel upheld the penalties, Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick requested a hearing before the National Stock Car Racing chief appellate officer John Middlebrook, the former General Motors executive, to continue the team's appeal of NASCAR's sanctions. The hearing, which is expected to occur next week, is the final opportunity for the No. 48 team to avoid the strict penalties issued when the Chevrolet failed technical inspection before the first practice session of the season at Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 17.
"I don't accept it [the ruling]," team owner Rick Hendrick told reporters outside NASCAR's R&D Center. "Period."
That means Knaus and Malec will still be on the job when Johnson's car arrives at Bristol Motor Speedway for this week's race, but this could simply be extending the inevitable. It appears obvious that at some point very soon someone other than Knaus and Malec will be preparing Johnson's cars.
Knaus is the only crew chief Johnson has ever known since joining the Cup Series as a rookie in 2002. Together, they have formed the most celebrated driver/crew chief relationship since "The King" Richard Petty and his cousin, Dale Inman, combined to win a record 200 races and seven Cup titles together.
With Johnson's smooth racing skill and Knaus' brilliance, they have set the standard for other teams at NASCAR's top level. Ever the innovator, Knaus has become the best in the sport by pushing tolerances to the limit and by devising things that will give his car and driver an edge. Together, Johnson and Knaus have driven to 55 Cup victories and five Cup championships.
But Knaus' innovation has led to quite a rap sheet of indiscretions and infractions, making him NASCAR's No. 1 suspect in the garage. He was suspended prior to the 2006 Daytona 500 and was also suspended in 2007 before the road race at Sonoma, Calif.
NASCAR issued this year's penalties to the team on Feb. 29, and they included the loss of 25 car owner points; the loss of 25 driver points; a $100,000 fine and a six-race suspension and NASCAR probation until May 9, 2012 for Knaus; and another six-race suspension and NASCAR probation until May 9, 2012 for Malec.
Johnson, Knaus and Hendrick Motorsports continue to put on a united front, emphasizing they fully support each other. But if a six-race suspension and a major points penalty dooms Johnson's bid for a sixth championship, Hendrick might be forced to weigh Knaus' assets against his liabilities.
"There is really nothing I can do for that issue or for that situation," Johnson said last Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. "At the end of the day, I have to get maximum points each and every week and, at a minimum, secure a wild-card spot. Winning at least one race, maybe two races would do that. That's my mindset: to go out and win races and then the points will take care of itself. Right now, we're in a position that I don't want to be in, but we'll climb the ladder slowly."
When Knaus was suspended prior to the 2006 Daytona 500, Darian Grubb took over as interim crew chief and the No. 48 team went on to its only win in the Great American Race.
What if that happens again? There are many talented crew members within the Hendrick organization that could do an expert job as Knaus' replacement, and if one made the most of a six-race opportunity on top of the No. 48 pit box, would Hendrick consider parting ways with Knaus? It seems unfathomable, but they were saying the same thing about Peyton Manning a year ago.
Even if the team doesn't do well in Knaus' absence Hendrick might consider a change. Tuesday's ruling was a bitter setback to Johnson and the entire Hendrick Motorsports team. Without the penalty, Johnson would be 13th in the standings with 86 points. With the penalty, he is 23rd, 64 points out of the lead and 36 out of the Chase after three races this season. He is a fierce competitor who fights for every point he can on the racetrack and takes nothing for granted. To get beat on the track and lose points is one thing, but to have a 25-point penalty assessed because of actions by the crew chief are quite another.
Only time will tell Knaus' fate, but it is becoming quite obvious that in this court of appeals, time is running out for Hendrick Motorsports.