Commentary

Sideshow at NASCAR R&D? C'mon

Updated: March 13, 2012, 7:58 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

CONCORD, N.C. -- Charlotte Motor Speedway mascot Lugnut and a public relations person wearing a chef's cap and apron delivered fried cupcakes. Sprint Cup Series driver Landon Cassill delivered burgers made by sponsor Burger King. A Sprint representative delivered Chick-fil-A sandwiches and salads.

And, oh, the National Stock Car Racing Appeals Commission delivered a verdict of guilty as charged.

Send in the clowns.

Just when you thought the wonderful world of NASCAR penalties and appeals couldn't get any crazier, it did.

If what happened inside the Research and Development Center on Tuesday was half as bizarre as what happened outside of it, then the sport needs to look at another way to settle appeals.

Tuesday's closed five-hour-plus hearing ended as most, with the commission upholding NASCAR's original penalty against the team of five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson for violations discovered prior to the initial inspection for the Daytona 500.

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson
Jeff Bottari/Getty Images/NASCARNASCAR docked Jimmie Johnson 25 points after his car failed opening day inspection at the Daytona 500.

In case you missed it, Johnson was docked 25 points, crew chief Chad Knaus was suspended for six weeks and fined $100,000, and car chief Ron Malec was suspended for six weeks.

The points penalty was issued immediately. Knaus and Malec will remain with the team until team owner Rick Hendrick takes the next and final step in the appeal process.

Yes, we get to do this all over again -- next week at the earliest -- as Chief Appellate Officer John Middlebrook gets the final say in this "he said, he said" adventure.

At least Hendrick has a fighting chance with Middlebrook. The longtime Chevrolet team owner and dealer likely has been to dinner many times with the former General Motors executive.

Hendrick, along with NASCAR president Mike Helton, were among the six who honored Middlebrook at his 2009 retirement ceremony.

"There's just no agenda with him," Hendrick told the Associated Press before Middlebrook heard the Clint Bowyer appeal in 2010. "John will base decisions on the facts and what he thinks is the right thing, not outside pressure.

"He understands the sport and its issues, and his background and experience give him a unique perspective. He's made tough calls throughout his career, so he won't be afraid to do that."

In other words, Middlebrook won't be afraid to stand up to NASCAR as he did in Bowyer's case, reducing the fine on crew chief Shane Wilson from $150,000 to $100,000 and the suspension from six to four weeks.

Hendrick had almost no shot with the commission that consisted of former Indy Racing League and Goodyear executive director Leo Mehl, Bowman Gray Stadium promoter Dale Pinilis and former USAC chairman John Capels.

The commission hasn't overturned a Cup penalty since 2005, and it rarely reduces one. By the way, Kyle Petty said on Sunday in Las Vegas that some members of the 45-member commission are not alive, but all three at this hearing were.

Hendrick added that they were capable.

But are they educated enough on engineering and everything they heard on Tuesday regarding the C-posts on the 48 car that NASCAR said were illegal?

Hendrick never went that far in praising the process.

"It's just hard to have someone to try to digest everything that you have to digest in this situation," Hendrick said. "But again, from the days I started in this sport, from what I had to deal with until today, NASCAR has made tremendous strides."

[+] EnlargeChad Knaus
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesSuspended crew chief Chad Knaus will remain with the 48 team while the appeal process is ongoing.

But is it enough? If you're fighting a technical decision with technical evidence, don't you want somebody with that background to hear the evidence?

And wouldn't it be nice to have a chance to be in the room at the same time and argue against what the other side says?

If Hendrick truly believed the system was fair, he would drop the matter now and move on. He's not. Why?

"I don't accept it, period," he said.

Seldom if ever has Hendrick been more defiant about something in this sport. He'll tell you without blinking an eye that the same car with the same C-posts went through NASCAR's tech 16 timers and passed before going to Daytona. He'll tell you it is the same car Johnson won with last year at Talladega.

He'll also argue that it was unfair to confiscate the parts before the car was measured with templates in tech.

NASCAR simply argues the C-posts were illegal -- period -- whether they fit the template or not.

As it was made clear under the sport's late chairman Bill France Jr., this is a "benevolent dictatorship."

It is, but not as much as it was.

And NASCAR did show some heart at this appeal that it didn't at Bowyer's in 2010, providing media an escort to the restroom.

We still don't know exactly what happened at the hearing. Hendrick declined to go into detail until the final appeal is heard.

"All I can tell you is I believe in my guys and I believe in the system," he said. "You won't know until it's over."

What we do know is that it was crazy outside the R&D Center. Here's a quick rehash:

• Two television satellite trucks arrived around 7 a.m., which is two more than appeared before Bowyer's initial appeal.

• Hendrick & Co. slipped in the back door sometime before the appeal began at 9 a.m. Childress came and left through the front door.

• I arrived at 8:10 a.m. with coffee and Munchkins from Dunkin' Donuts. Can't have a proper stakeout without either.

• At 10:40 a.m., Adrian Parker of CMS arrived with Lugnut to promote the May Coca-Cola 600 with fried cupcakes. Slightly before noon, pizza was delivered.

• Two Twitter followers took advantage of their vacation time to stop by and say hello shortly before noon.

• Cassill arrived around 1 p.m., offering smoothies with the burgers. Most were too full to eat by then, a complaint that never occurred during Bowyer's appeal.

The only real news that came during all this time was Hendrick, spotted in the restroom, uses two paper towels to dry his hands.

Send in the clowns.

And in a week or two the craziness will happen again.

"None of us want to have to go through this, but sometimes you just disagree," Hendrick said. "And this is one of those cases."

And the craziness will continue until something changes.

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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