Mike Helton defends appeals process
FONTANA, Calif. -- NASCAR president Mike Helton said he believes in the sport's rules inspectors and the overall appeals process, despite the decision Tuesday that overturned most of the penalties imposed on Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet from a body-alignment issue at Daytona last month.
"We think the decision made this week supports the inspection process with the elements of the penalty that were upheld," Helton said Friday at Auto Club Speedway. "It indicates they did their job correctly."
NASCAR originally penalized the No. 48 team 25 points and suspended both crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec for six races, along with fining Knaus $100,000.
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Before the car went on the track at Daytona, inspectors said the C-posts (on each side of the rear window) were not within the tolerances of the rule book, but the car was not measured on the templates.
Both Knaus and Malec were allowed to continue working races while the penalty was appealed by Hendrick Motorsports. A three-man appeals panel held up the penalties two weeks ago, but most of the penalties were rescinded Tuesday by chief appellate officer John Middlebrook, a former GM executive who has the final say in the appeals process.
The points and the suspensions were eliminated by Middlebrook, but the fine was upheld. Helton said the fact that the fine was upheld proves that NASCAR inspectors discovered a violation.
"Elements of the penalty were upheld based on parts of the car that did not conform to the rules," Helton said. "The debate was how we reacted to it. That's as much a bureaucratic decision as it is a competition decision."
Johnson disagrees, saying the decision by Middlebrook proves the No. 48 team did nothing wrong.
"The reason we won the appeal is we proved the C-posts were legal," Johnson said Friday. "It's one of those where [Johnson and Helton] will agree to disagree. If we didn't prove it, we wouldn't have won the appeal.
"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."
Middlebrook has not spoken publicly about his reasons for greatly reducing the penalty.
"When the chief appellate officer is chosen, it doesn't include having to explain the decisions he makes," Helton said. "If he chooses to, that's up the him, but he is not obligated to do so."
As NASCAR's president, Helton said it is his responsibility to choose the chief appellate officer, which is reviewed annually.
Middlebrook and Rick Hendrick are old friends from all the years Middlebrook worked at GM, so Helton was asked if Middlebrook should have recused himself from the final appeal.
"Our opinion of him hasn't changed," Helton said. "When we chose John, it was based on our experience with him over several years and his pragmatic approach to business and his relationship with race teams and NASCAR. The reasons we chose him haven't changed."
Johnson doesn't want anyone to think his team got a free pass, even though Knaus has been penalized and suspended for past violations.
"Hendrick Motorsports lives by the book," Johnson said. "We work as hard as we can to carefully stay in the hundredths or thousandths [of an inch] needed in inspections."
The surprising decision by Middlebrook has caused some people to wonder if changes are needed in the inspection or appeals process, but Helton said NASCAR has no plans to do so.
"It's status quo," Helton said. "We do not anticipate any changes. The appellate process has been in existence since the beginning of NASCAR in some form or fashion.
"They exist for the car owners and competitors to have another ear outside of NASCAR if they don't agree with our findings. There is less gray than there was in the past, but we realize there are different ways to interpret things. [NASCAR founder] Bill France Sr. realized that back in 1948 and it's why he had an appeal process as part of our organization."
Helton said the interpretation of the rules is an ever-evolving process.
"Every rule in the rulebook has a story behind it," he said. "That's how the rulebook has been developed over the years. We learn things every week that help us be more relevant and more accurate.
"We take very seriously our responsibility to regulate sport in an open way with integrity. We defend our actions and are proud of our inspectors."