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Tuesday, March 20, 2012
Rick Hendrick's persistence pays off

By David Newton
ESPN.com

CONCORD, N.C. -- Rick Hendrick placed his hands on two bars of the white iron gate near the back of NASCAR's Research and Development Center and put his face in the middle as he waited for a verdict on Tuesday's appeal.

He looked jailed.

He also looked relatively happy for an owner who later said that the past 30 days he'd been put through hell. He was so loose that he jokingly said retired crew chief Ray Evernham would replace Chad Knaus on Jimmie Johnson's car if he lost his final plea.

Chad Knaus
Chad Knaus won't miss any time on the 48 pit box after his suspension was overturned Tuesday.

He didn't.

Stop the presses.

NASCAR has a ruling overturned in the Sprint Cup Series about as often as it snows on Christmas Eve in Hawaii. The last one completely overturned came in 2005 when there was insufficient evidence against Michael Waltrip, who'd allegedly made an inappropriate gesture during a television broadcast.

This one wasn't completely overturned, but it was enough so that most of us standing in the hot sun for more than five hours waiting on a decision were shocked.

It was a major victory for Hendrick. The six-week suspensions for Knaus and car chief Ron Malec were lifted by Chief Appellate Officer John Middlebrook, who had the lone and final say. So was the 25-point penalty against Johnson, moving him up seven spots in the standings to 11th.

It was a bigger victory for the sport, even though NASCAR officials probably are licking their wounds.

Still, NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp said the governing body accepts the ruling and believes in the inspection system.

As I've been saying from the beginning, NASCAR needs to give teams room to maneuver within the rules. Knaus did that, finding a way to give his car an aerodynamic advantage while still fitting the templates.

This also showed that having both parties sit down and argue the case face-to-face, something that didn't happen in the initial appeal, is the fairest way to proceed. Hendrick and his crew got to ask series director John Darby questions and Darby got to ask them questions, the way it's supposed to be when two sides are arguing a case.

"Today was open and easygoing," Hendrick said outside the R&D Center. "I sat in the same place as John Darby. We all presented our information, probably some of the things I didn't know and probably some of the things he didn't know.

"I think we'll all learn and go forward."

What they learned is that just because somebody cheated in the past -- and Knaus clearly has by his list of nine previous violations -- doesn't mean there should be a rush to judgment to say he cheated again.

In October, Knaus embarrassed NASCAR when he leaned into a car window before the Talladega race and told his driver to damage the back end if he won. Knaus was embarrassed, too, having been caught on camera.

Jimmie Johnson and Rick Hendrick
Rick Hendrick's persistence paid off after the second appeal, with Jimmie Johnson gaining back 25 driver points in the Sprint Cup standings.

But the governing body was embarrassed more, because it gave the appearance that something might be illegal with the same car that won at Talladega in the spring.

NASCAR reacted by taking Johnson's car back to the R&D Center the remaining four races of the Chase for further inspection. Nothing was found.

So when Knaus and the 48 car arrived in Daytona, NASCAR was waiting. It confiscated the C-posts before the car went through initial inspection, and later handed down the penalties that were overturned Tuesday.

The problem, according to Hendrick, was the car never went through inspection. The problem was at least three other cars, including one Hendrick sponsored, had issues with the C-posts after going through inspection and were allowed to be fixed with no penalties.

The problem was more than 20 other cars also had aerodynamic issues that were allowed to be sanded and made legal without penalties.

When Hendrick presented this, along with photos and a signed affidavit from a NASCAR inspector from an earlier race that the same C-posts were legal, Middlebrook had little choice but to overturn.

"The difference today [and the first appeal] was Mr. Middlebrook took an awful lot of time to look at everything that NASCAR had and everything we presented from photos of the car at every race, on the line, the dates, the records from the tech center and our records," Hendrick said. "And they all matched up real nice.

"There's ways to eliminate all these things, and NASCAR is working hard to get there because nobody enjoys this. Today, by taking time and going piece by piece, date by date, you can see there was no intent on our part. We were clearly [within] the rulebook. We were clearly, our car was approved."

There's still a target on Knaus' back. He knows that. Hendrick accepts that. There should be when you have a record like he does.

"It's definitely looked at more than any car out there," Hendrick said of the 48. "If you go by the rulebook, it says everybody's car will be looked at the same. The rulebook doesn't say just because you win you're going to get scrutinized more than anybody else."

Good point.

The 48 wins a lot. Johnson and Knaus have five titles and 55 wins since 2002. They have been so dominant that some claim they've ruined the sport, although it's hard to understand how success can do that when it doesn't in other sports.

It is what it is. I'm not worried about my reputation. I'm worried about winning races for Hendrick Motorsports.

-- Chad Knaus

"I have good relationships with everybody in the garage," Hendrick said. "NASCAR has come light-years. All we ask for is we get treated the same way.

"Today proved they have a system that if there is a mistake made or if they didn't look at something or the evidence wasn't there at the time of the infraction, there is a way to remedy the deal."

Remember, this sport was born on bootleggers and crew chiefs trying to beat the system. While outright cheating can't be condoned, there needs to be room for brilliant people like Knaus to be innovative.

He clearly, under the eyes of Middlebrook, found a way to tweak the C-posts enough to give Johnson an edge without crossing the line.

That Middlebrook didn't lift the $100,000 fine, considering everything else, is the biggest surprise. If Knaus isn't guilty, then why must he pay anything?

Probably because NASCAR still insists a rule was broken and Middlebrook didn't want to make the governing body look totally incompetent.

But if NASCAR had a process more like Tuesday's in place for the first appeal, perhaps the past 30 days wouldn't have been like "hell." Perhaps Knaus and Hendrick could've spent the countless hours needed to prepare a defense on preparing their race team instead.

"It is what it is," Knaus said. "I'm not worried about my reputation. I'm worried about winning races for Hendrick Motorsports."

And he will win more. Some will call him a cheater. NASCAR surely will keep an even closer eye on him.

But at least for one day, the innovativeness that helped make the sport what it is today lives.

"You asked [last] Tuesday why I was doing this," Hendrick said of fighting the penalties. "Because I believe so hard and so much in the facts. I can say they went through the facts from one end to the other.

"Hopefully, this will be the last time I'll ever have to stand here and do this."

Maybe that's asking too much.