Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Is Cheatin' Chad a fair nickname?

For years any NASCAR fan who wasn't a Hendrick Motorsports fan has wondered if that organization, one of, if not the, top one the sport, has been treated a little too kindly by NASCAR officials. We've wondered just how those teams sometimes seem to get the right breaks, like a debris caution, at just the right time.
Well, at least for the moment, those questions must be put to rest with the penalties announced Wednesday against the No. 48 team of Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus. NASCAR's penalty of a $100,000 fine to Knaus and 25 points from the team has some wondering if the penalty is too harsh. If anything, NASCAR made a point that it is not a respecter of big money teams.
In fact, it also made a point that it has a long memory when it comes to messing with its rules. Knaus is undoubtedly one of the, if not the, top crew chiefs in the business. He's got five titles and the best team, yet, still feels the need to push the rules envelope, and as his past has proven, the envelope can get a little full at times.
So, is he really Cheatin' Chad when it comes to preparing the No. 48 car for its races, or just the one that gets caught? It's long been a practice of crew chiefs to try and stretch the rules. Even a 10th of a second per lap is considered a huge gain. However, the same technology that allows teams to find ways to go faster, also allows NASCAR officials a better opportunity to catch the rule breakers. The problem is while Knaus may not be the only rule stretcher, he gets caught a lot.
Here's is history of fines and penalties before this year.
2007 - Six weeks and 100 points (old points system) for flaring out bumpers at Infineon Raceway
2006 - Suspended three weeks and told to leave Daytona for rear window violation
2003 - $1,000 for unapproved air directional advice following all-star race
2003 - $2,500 for roof being too low in pre-race inspection at Charlotte
2002 - $25,000 and 25 points for illegal mounting bolts at Daytona in July
2002 - $5,000 for inappropriate language after race at Dover
2001 - $750 for small windshield clips at Talladega.
Also, the team won an appeal when he was scheduled to be fined $25,000 and Knaus suspended two weeks for a low roof at Las Vegas in 2005.
And last year at Talladega, NASCAR officials' suspicions were raised when Knaus told Johnson to damage the car if he won. In fact, team owner Rick Hendrick has said this year's Daytona car is the same one used in all four restrictor plate races last season. So, did Knaus tinker with this car or was the car illegal all last year until NASCAR was tipped off by the Talladega comment? That we likely will never know.
What we do know is that it had been five years since Knaus had been caught by NASCAR. If it had been less time, the penalty would have likely been more severe.
As it is, Johnson will start the second race of the year at Phoenix Sunday with -23 points, 70 behind leader and Daytona winner Matt Kenseth.
Johnson certainly has the kind of team that can rebound. In fact, the question will be how many races will it take him to reach the top 10 in points, not if he can. My guess is he will be there certainly before they return to Daytona in July and probably sometime in May.
That's one of the reasons Knaus knows he can take a chance. The team is good enough to recover from a mistake, or two or three. But the question now will be if Knaus' reputation as one who will try to cheat can recover.
Probably not, and that's something no fine or penalty will ever repair.

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