Knaus penalty is merely a slap on the wrist
by Pete McCole

February 23, 2006

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Jimmie Johnson won Daytona 500 even without Knaus

NASCAR announced Tuesday they have suspended Chad Knaus, crew chief on Jimmie Johnson’s Daytona 500 winning team, for an additional three races for an illegal modification found on the no. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet following qualifying on Feb. 12.

The team was not docked any points, and will retain the points lead going into this Sunday’s race at Fontana, Calif.

Hendrick Motorsports, owner of Johnson’s car, said they would not appeal the penalty.

And why should they?

The penalty, while consistent with similar punishments NASCAR has handed out in the past, is seen by many as nothing more than a slap on the wrist.

On the other side of the coin, NASCAR also announced a penalty against the Terry Labonte’s no. 96 team, which was caught using an unapproved carburetor on their car during qualifying.

NASCAR took away 25 points from the no. 96 team and fined crew chief Philippe Lopez $25,000, all for a technical infraction they had no part in – Joe Gibbs Racing supplies the engines to the team, and they were responsible for the illegal part.

Unfair? NASCAR doesn’t seem to think so. As far as the sanctioning body is concerned, not having their crew chief around is punishment enough for Johnson’s team.

Sure, not having Knaus at the track could have a negative effect on the team psychologically, but as far as day-to-day operations, it’ll be business as usual.

The penalty doesn’t prevent Knaus from going to the race shop and prepping the cars for this weekend. The penalty doesn’t even forbid him from going to California. He just can’t be at the track.

But he doesn’t have to.

Computer telemetry, radio link-ups, real-time scoring – thanks to the wonders of technology, Knaus doesn’t even need to be at the racetrack, he can get it all while sitting on his sofa at home.

Don’t believe it? Try it yourself – it’s available at NASCAR’s official website. It’s called “Trackpass”, and with it, anyone can be an armchair crew chief.

Considering the effort NASCAR puts forth to police cheating, the punishment doesn’t fit the crime, especially considering the fact this isn’t the first time Knaus has thumbed his nose at the rule book.

Since becoming crew chief on the no. 48 car, Knaus has been penalized by NASCAR six times and has been fined over $93,000.

Besides their Daytona 500 win, two of Johnson’s victories last season were also clouded by controversy.

In March of last year, Knaus was fined $35,000 and suspended for two races and the team was docked 25 points after their car was found to be too low in post race inspection following Johnson’s victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Knaus’ suspension was successfully appealed, but the fine and points penalty stood.

Then, last September at Dover, Johnson’s winning car was found to have some modifications made to the shock absorbers. Johnson’s win stood, and no penalty was assessed, but NASCAR re-wrote the rules to prevent such tampering in the future.

While Knaus’ rap sheet is longer than most, there have been several blatant examples of cheating that have been discovered over the years as team get more inventive, turning the act of cheating into almost an art form.

As the famous expression among NASCAR teams go – “It’s our job to cheat – it’s their job to catch us.”

But NASCAR contends that the penalties they assess are supposed to deter competitors from trying to cheat to gain an advantage.

Clearly, Knaus has not gotten the message.

And unless the penalties for cheating come with sharper teeth, he never will.

Officials went over Johnson’s car with a fine-toothed comb following the race – the car was found to be legit and therefore so is the victory, but Johnson should never have been allowed to race that car to begin with; NASCAR should have confiscated the car as soon as the infraction was found and forced Johnson to use his back-up car.

And a $25,000 fine? Chicken scratch for a team that just pocketed well over $1 million for winning the Daytona 500. Hendrick Motorsports probably spent more than that on food and lodging for the team during Speedweeks.

NASCAR needs to penalize teams where is hurts – in the point standings. $25,000 won’t amount to a hill of beans when it comes down to the final race of the season.

But taking away points might.

And is 25 points really enough when it comes to blatant cheating? 25 points might be OK if it’s a technical infraction like Labonte’s – an unapproved part or a part that was incorrectly manufactured.

But when a part is machined or built specifically to circumvent the rules, perhaps a harsher punishment like 200 or even 500 points, virtually eliminating a team from championship contention.

Maybe then, teams will listen.

Until then, it’s their job to cheat, and NASCAR’s job to catch them, but when the penalty doesn’t fit the crime, who is really going to be afraid of getting caught?

The author can be contacted petem@autoracing1.com

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