Commentary

NASCAR penalty system scrutinized

Updated: March 23, 2012, 6:43 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

FONTANA, Calif. -- NASCAR president Mike Helton felt the need to defend his people, who, publicly at least, appeared to take a left hook to the jaw this week.

Most of the penalties imposed on the No. 48 Chevy were overturned Tuesday in a decision that has rocked NASCAR's world.

And Jimmie Johnson felt the need to defend his people as well on Friday, saying the 48 team won a shocking final verdict because his guys were wronged.

Can they both be right? Which is it?

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson
Jerry Markland/Getty ImagesJimmie Johnson said all the penalties against the 48 team should have been overturned, including the $100,000 against crew chief Chad Knaus.

• Hendrick Motorsports got away with one and beat the system, thanks to the all-powerful Oz (chief appellate officer John Middlebrook), who happened to be a friend of Rick Hendrick.

• The team was a victim of overzealous inspectors who wanted to punish their longtime nemesis, crew chief Chad Knaus, who made them look bad last year at Talladega when he told Johnson to wreck the car if he won the race.

Which explanation works for you?

I don't know. What I do know is the entire process has been called into question after Middlebrook basically gave the 48 a get-out-of-jail-free card in the final appeal.

A major NASCAR penalty (C-posts too wide on the body) involving one of its top teams and a crew chief with a history of violations was ruled almost entirely invalid.

The six-week suspensions for Knaus and car chief Ron Malec were thrown out. The 25 points taken from Johnson were returned.

However, the $100,000 fine to Knaus was upheld. Huh? How in the world does that make sense?

"Elements of the penalty were upheld based on parts of the car that did not conform to the rules," Helton said Friday. "The debate was how we reacted to it. That's as much a bureaucratic decision as it is a competition decision."

In other words, NASCAR was right, but its discipline was too harsh. You don't ground your 8-year-old son for a month just because he didn't eat all his green beans at dinner.

Helton said he believes the system worked in the end, although he wouldn't reveal what he thought about Middlebrook's revisions.

"I'll keep my personal reaction to myself,'' he said. "I'm the only one who will ever know it, but I got through that in about 30 seconds. We did what we felt was correct and our inspectors did their job. The appellate process is complete and we'll go on down the road."

I'd say Helton pretty much revealed his true feelings there. That Helton felt the need to address the issue with reporters at Auto Club Speedway tells you all you need to know.

Helton stood up for the sport and its officials. Johnson stood up for his team.

[+] EnlargeMike Helton
Todd Warshaw/Getty ImagesNASCAR president Mike Helton defended the league on Friday: "We did what we felt was correct and our inspectors did their job."

"The reason we won the appeal is we proved the C-posts were legal," Johnson said. "But I don't feel vindicated because I felt everything should have been overturned. I'm not totally happy. I share some confusion. We didn't feel the penalty was warranted in the first place."

Instead of just being thankful for a major reprieve, Johnson went toe to toe with Helton: "We'll agree to disagree, Johnson said.

Other drivers weren't sure what to think about the ruling.

"I wasn't surprised because nothing in this sport surprises me," Kevin Harvick said Friday. "It's no different than watching a case like O.J. [Simpson] and watching O.J. go free.

"Watching that case, there's no way you thought that was going to happen. Then you see the verdict. It's very similar to that. You think something is cut-and-dry, and the next thing you know it's not."

But Harvick said he has no problem with the process: "It's an intense process, but I think it's a fair process."

Is it? How fair is it to have a final judge who happens to be good friends with the team owner he's judging? In a real court of law, one would expect the judge to recuse himself.

Is it fair to have a final appeal decided by one person? Last time I checked, the U.S. Supreme Court had nine judges, requiring a 5-4 majority on a ruling.

One other point: Whenever the Supreme Court makes a ruling, one of the judges on the majority writes an explanation of the decision.

Middlebrook has said nary a word on his reasoning.

And NASCAR has some issues in this process, as well. The inspectors made an eyeball ruling, telling Knaus the car was illegal without measuring it.

It had nothing to do with fitting the templates. Some would say the car is legal if it fits the templates, regardless of how it looks. That's called innovation.

The whole thing, from the first ruling at Daytona until the final verdict by Middleton, just seems a little seedy. Maybe it doesn't matter if justice was served in the end.

Was it?

I asked Brad Keselowski, a driver rarely afraid to express his opinion, which side of the fence he stands.

Is it comforting knowing your team might get a major penalty overturned if you feel you were wronged? Or do you feel like the 48 got away with it?

"If it were a situation where my team has been caught and fined numerous times, then I would think about it," Keselowski said. "I've got an owner by the name of Roger Penske who has a saying that he's not in favor of robbing the bank.

"He's got a great reputation. He's adamant about not pushing things to the point where you can get in trouble. The emphasis is to do it right rather than questioning the process of what to do when you get caught."

Well, there you go. Just keep your nose clean and don't leave your fate in the eyes of NASCAR inspectors or appeals judges. They might surprise you.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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