NASCAR Penalties Overturned; Chad Knaus, Rick Hendrick React To Decision

Rick Hendrick closed his eyes while he spoke, the team owner appearing worn down and exhausted from a month of his organization being under suspicion of cheating.

Though tired, his posture was not one of defeat, but relief. Hendrick Motorsports gained a stunning reversal of its pre-Daytona 500 penalties on Tuesday afternoon, with chief appellate officer John Middlebrook granting the No. 48 team its wish to strike down punishments it felt were unjust.

"I'm glad this is over," Hendrick said, adding later that the process, "has been hell for 30 days."

Middlebrook, a longtime Hendrick friend and former General Motors executive who now heads the National Stock Car Racing Appeals Panel, decided to rescind driver Jimmie Johnson's 25-point penalty and the six-week suspensions for crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec.

Most observers believed Middlebrook would either uphold the penalties or slightly reduce them, as he had in the three previous appeals he has heard.

Make that four-for-four, with the Hendrick reversal being the most significant.

"I don't think we made any mistakes, I really don't," NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp said. "I think our inspection process speaks for itself. I think it's worked very, very well in the garage area for many years, and I think it's going to work very well for years to come."

Middlebrook represented the final stage of the appeal process after a three-member appeals panel unanimously decided to uphold NASCAR's original penalties last week.

"I was shocked last Tuesday (by the panel's decision)," Hendrick said. "To me, (Middlebrook's ruling) felt like this was the only way this could go."

Curiously, though, Middlebrook decided to uphold NASCAR's $100,000 fine to Knaus – and did so without explanation.

"We had to put a lot of effort into this to prove our innocence, and obviously it was worthwhile," Knaus said when he met with reporters following Hendrick's appearance. "... Obviously, we're not happy with the fine. That's a lot of money for something was proved to be OK. So that hurts a little bit."

Said Tharp: "I think there's still evidence here there was a rules infraction. The $100,000 fine is intact, so there was a rules infraction."

No one was able to offer an explanation for why Middlebrook rescinded the suspensions and points penalty but kept the fine in place, and Middlebrook was not made available to reporters.

Either way, Tuesday's decision ended an extended process which continued to make headlines off the track.

While the No. 48 car waited in line for pre-qualifying inspection for February's Daytona 500, inspectors pulled the team aside and cited illegally modified C-post panels (the sheet metal extending from the roof to the rear quarterpanel).

But Hendrick insisted the C-posts were the exact same ones the No. 48 car used for all four restrictor-plate races last season. The car had been to NASCAR's Research & Development Center for technical inspection after Johnson's win in the spring Talladega race and was back in the R&D Center as recently as January.

At Tuesday's hearing, Hendrick presented roughly 20 photographs, 15 pages of evidence and three sworn affidavits that he said showed the C-posts had never been touched since the previous inspections.

The team also showed Middlebrook a written statement from a NASCAR inspector that said "the (C-post) area was OK" to work in, since it wasn't covered by the templates.

"All I can tell you is by the rule book, the car was legal," Hendrick said. "I believe if that wasn't the case, we wouldn't have gotten this overturned."

Hendrick was also upset inspectors never gave the No. 48 team a chance to work on the C-posts once they were ruled to be illegal. The team owner said there were more than 20 teams who had the chance to sand or grind their cars and go through inspection again at Daytona, including at least three cars who were given the opportunity to work on their C-posts.

"All we ask for is we get treated the same way," he said. "I think today proved that they have a system where if there's a mistake made, or if they didn't look at something at the time of the infraction, there is a way to go out and remedy the deal."

Knaus said the idea he and his team are a bunch of cheaters is unfair, even though he's been caught and suspended several times.

"It's been years since we've been in trouble – years!" Knaus said. "It's unfortunate the perception out there is we continue to bend the rules, because we truly don't. ... We go above and beyond to be compliant with what they want.

"I was really, really shocked (at Daytona), and I was pretty torn up, because I felt we did everything within our power to build the best car we could for the Daytona 500 and take it down there without any problems."

Repeating his oft-used mantra, the crew chief said he's not concerned about his reputation and only cares about winning races for Hendrick Motorsports.

"If people don't like the way we do it or what's happened in the past," he said, "then it's sad."

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