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Knaus doing what crew chiefs should

3/1/2012 - NASCAR

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A quick survey of Sprint Cup crew chiefs reveals Chad Knaus shouldn't be considered a "cheater" or a "villain" because NASCAR on Wednesday penalized him for the 10th time in his career.

If anything, the survey revealed Jimmie Johnson's crew chief should be commended.

"It's your job to push the gray areas, isn't it?" said veteran crew chief Pat Tryson, in anticipation of penalties before Monday night's Daytona 500. "That's what we all signed up for. I give Chad credit because that's what we should all be doing."

Tryson makes a valid point, although Knaus' willingness to push the gray area has five-time champion Johnson in the deepest hole of his career to start the season thanks to a 25-point penalty and 42nd-place finish in the Daytona 500.

Not to worry. Johnson has overcome bigger deficits in a shorter time than the one he faces after this penalty. It includes a six-race suspension for Knaus and car chief Ron Malec for what was deemed illegal C-posts discovered during initial inspection in Daytona.

Not to worry about the suspensions yet, either. Hendrick Motorsports plans to appeal them, so Knaus and Malec will remain active until that is heard.

But to label Knaus a cheater and bad for the sport -- as many will -- is a bit harsh, at least according to the crew chiefs surveyed and the history of the sport. What Knaus and all crew chiefs do isn't much different than attorneys looking for loopholes in the law.

Most crew chiefs acknowledge they all push the limits, that some just get caught more than others. Some, like Knaus, may get more attention from NASCAR because of their history.

"I also don't think a guy should get suspended for doing his job," said Tryson, who has been fined a time or two. "I'm OK with fining him, but why should he get suspended? That's what he's supposed to be doing."

Said Darian Grubb, who led Tony Stewart to the 2011 title before moving to Joe Gibbs Racing to chief for Denny Hamlin, "Your job is to make sure you take advantage of every opportunity you have for performance advantages."

Team owner/longtime crew chief Tommy Baldwin agreed.

"You do it because you want to win," he said. "You want to push the envelope. Chad has always been that type of guy. He has always been the guy that wants to lead and doesn't want to follow.

"We've all been fined before. I've got a couple of hundred thousand dollars' worth of fines. It doesn't make us bad people."

One could argue you don't get to be great without pushing the limits and occasionally surpassing them. Smokey Yunick and Ray Evernham were considered geniuses at creating advantages, and both faced their share of penalties.

But neither is looked at as the villain Knaus is made out to be. Both Yunick and Evernham will likely be Hall of Famers one day.

In 1990, Mark Martin's team was fined 46 points for using an illegal carburetor spacer plate in a victory at Richmond. His crew chief, Robin Pemberton, now is NASCAR's vice president for competition.

He's not vilified.

Knaus, judging on past history, will be by many. Fans will come out of the woodwork to criticize him.

But Johnson has benefited much more from Knaus' willingness to push the gray areas than he has suffered. He admits Knaus played a big part in him winning the 2006 Daytona 500 even though Knaus was kicked out of the 500 for a post-qualifying violation.

Johnson also admits that there are times when Knaus gets on his nerves. He was "kind of surprised" that his crew chief told him to damage the rear end of his car -- the same one he brought to this year's 500 -- if he won the October race at Talladega. He called that a "foolish statement."

But at the end of the day Johnson has Knaus' back, and the two will work even harder to overcome this deficit if the appeal doesn't overturn it.

It will drive them even harder to succeed.

It's not like they haven't been in a similar position before. Johnson finished 27th, 35th, 31st, 37th and 29th in the previous five Daytona 500s and rallied to make the Chase each year. He won the championship in each of those seasons but the last one.

In 2006, Johnson was eighth in points, 156 out of the lead, with six races left in the Chase. He won the championship by 56 points over Matt Kenseth.

Johnson has 25 races to make up this deficit. Knaus will play a major role in helping him do this whether it's from the sideline or the front line.

Is the suspension, particularly the length, unfair? Team owner Rick Hendrick believes it is, which is why he will fight it. He argues that the car is the same one that passed inspection 16 times and made numerous trips to NASCAR's Research and Development Center.

He argues -- based on conversations with him at Daytona -- that the car was singled out before going through inspection -- which many have verified -- but stops short of saying NASCAR is picking on his driver because of his past.

That does raise red flags.

There were rumblings that others in the garage tried similar tweaks that the 48 has been charged with, and that maybe the 48 was made an example of.

"I'm sure there are other people that are doing the exact same thing in the garage that didn't get caught," Grubb said. "You've got to take advantage of it if you can."

Grubb also acknowledged that even if there isn't a specific rule against what Knaus did, that even if it fit the template and simply was something the governing body disliked, violations are "at the discretion of NASCAR."

"Anything detrimental to the sport, they have the freedom to do anything they want to," Grubb said.

But Knaus isn't detrimental to the sport. He is good for the sport. He is what the sport is all about.

"They're in a situation where they've been in trouble before and it seems to work out," Tryson said. "I think that's why [Chad] keeps pushing it."

It's his job, after all.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.