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Monday, March 12, 2012
Nothing that appealing about hearing


CONCORD, N.C. -- The scene outside of NASCAR's Research and Development Center on Tuesday will be much like you'd see outside of a courthouse during a big trial.

It will be a media circus -- or a stakeout, as some call it -- but on a much smaller scale than you'd see with Casey Anthony or O.J. Simpson.

CNN and CNBC won't be here.

There will be a hearing going on inside, but there will be no judge in the pure legal sense, or attorneys cross examining witnesses. And there's no pretense that those under the spotlight are innocent until proven guilty.

Here you are guilty, without question, going in.

This is the scene of the National Stock Car Racing Commission. There are 45 members, but they rotate through for hearings. Two members and the chairman, who doesn't vote, hear each case. They will be listening to the Hendrick Motorsports appeal of the hefty penalty given to Jimmie Johnson's team for violations discovered last month during initial inspection for the Daytona 500.

Team owner Rick Hendrick doesn't believe the six-race suspensions that NASCAR handed to crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec -- as well as the 25-point penalty given to Johnson -- are fair. He'll argue that the governing body confiscated the C-posts deemed illegal before they went through tech.

He'll argue that the same car with the same C-posts -- pillars that come down from the roof to the rear quarter panel -- passed NASCAR's inspection 16 times previously.

Odds are, he'll lose.

Not necessarily because he doesn't have a good case, but because the commission seldom overturns decisions.

When Richard Childress Racing appealed Clint Bowyer's 150-point penalty in the fall of 2010, the commission had upheld 88 of 132 decisions between the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Truck Series, reduced 42 and increased two.

Most of the reductions were in the lower series. The last time a Cup penalty was reduced was in 2008 with Robby Gordon's team.

The last time a Sprint Cup penalty was completely overturned came in 2005, when insufficient evidence was found that Michael Waltrip made an inappropriate gesture during a television broadcast.

That the C-posts were deemed illegal on eyesight before the car was measured with templates in the inspection process might leave NASCAR vulnerable, but the system in place doesn't leave opportunity for HMS to directly question officials.

It also doesn't leave HMS the opportunity to question officials about what Hendrick believes could be a possible bias against Knaus for a history of violations.

So it's not a true hearing.

Former Roush Fenway Racing president Geoff Smith, a former attorney who was oh-for-at-least-five against the commission, said it best in 2010 when he explained what Childress faced.

"Well, the appeal process has got a public veneer of fairness attached to it," Smith said. "But the reality is that it's quite a bit different than what you would be thinking from looking at the veneer.

"I would say when the actual Cup series director makes a call, the penalty reduction [chances are] minuscule."

Former driver and current analyst Kyle Petty was a bit more direct during Sunday's "NASCAR RaceDay" broadcast on SPEED.

"This appeals process is a crapshoot," he said before the Las Vegas race. "There are 45 members on this board. … I challenge anybody out there to find me more than eight or 10 out of this 45 who have been to the race track in the last 12 to 24 months. These people don't go to the race track, they don't understand the process. They don't understand sometimes where this sport is."

Petty went on and on, but his bottom line was a point Smith made in 2010, that violators should be judged by their peers -- current drivers, owners and engineers -- not by track presidents and others who have a vested interest in NASCAR as a business.

"That's why I say it's one of these things where the deck is stacked against you," Smith said.

You could argue that current drivers and owners might be biased against another team, but if they expect to be treated fairly when their reputation is at stake, they're more likely to be fair with others.

Plus, they understand what a C-post is.

So there's a good chance Hendrick will lose, then make his final appeal to John Middlebrook, a retired General Motors executive who serves as the chief appellate officer.

That will create another small media circus.

And that will gives us all time to ponder if the system in place is fair.