CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The court of public opinion has long been divided on Chad Knaus. Depending on who you ask, the crew chief is a world-class cheater, a masterful innovator, or maybe a combination of both.
An appeals committee will get its say Tuesday, when Knaus goes before the National Stock Car Racing Appeals Panel to fight a six-race suspension handed down by NASCAR after five-time champion Jimmie Johnson’s Daytona 500 car failed its first inspection.
Many believe his reputation is at stake.
Those who follow NASCAR made up their minds about Knaus somewhere around suspension one, two, three or four.
Besides, he doesn’t much care what anyone thinks about him.
“As far as my reputation goes, I’m not too concerned about that,” he said. “What we want to do is go out there and do the best thing we can for Hendrick Motorsports, the best thing for (sponsor) Lowe’s and try to win races and championships.”
Nobody has been better at that than Knaus over the last decade.
He guided Johnson to a record five-straight championships and 53 victories since the two were paired in 2002 by team owner Rick Hendrick. Knaus is not credited with two other victories Johnson earned while Knaus was suspended, including, the 2006 Daytona 500. Knaus had been kicked out of SpeedWeeks by NASCAR in ’06 for alterations found on the car following Johnson’s qualifying lap.
It’s been a long time since Knaus last broke any rules. This latest incident is actually Knaus’ first infraction since 2007, when he sat out six races for flaring out the front bumpers of Johnson’s car at Sonoma. But, should it stand following Tuesday’s appeal, it will be his fourth suspension as a crew chief since 2001. A two-race suspension in 2005 was reduced on appeal to 90 days probation.
So how does this keep happening? And is Knaus really arrogant enough to believe he can pull a fast one on NASCAR’s inspectors time and time again?
Knaus is one of the most driven crew chiefs in NASCAR history, and no one would deny he’s made tremendous personal sacrifices in his quest to not just win every race entered, but to embarrass the competition while doing so. He’s 40 years old, single, childless and eats, sleeps and breathes racing.
So focused on being the very best, Knaus’ decision to skip preseason testing this January to instead take an African safari was considered news.
Knaus makes it his personal mission to find every gray area in the NASCAR rule book and exploit it to his gain. When it landed him in hot water time and time again, he had to re-evaluate his approach and inch closer to the line of acceptability.
Now he’s crossed it again — but that’s according to NASCAR, because Knaus maintains he wasn’t cheating. NASCAR ruled the sheet metal between the roof and the side windows had been illegally modified; Knaus said that was determined by a visual inspection and the car never even made it to the templates.
“We never even got the opportunity to actually present that under templates,” he said. “It is unfortunate, there is a bit of subjectiveness to it and that is why we are going through the appeal.”
Knaus also maintained the car had passed previous inspections “multiple times” at NASCAR’s R&D Center, and he never imagined there’d be a problem at the track.
“Honestly, it’s not what I had expected. I’m disappointed that it is in the situation it is,” he said. “This is not what we had expected rolling into Daytona at all.”
He’s revealed nothing about the defense he’ll present on Tuesday, but the odds are stacked against him persuading the appeals panel to cut him some slack. In the 11 appeals argued the last two seasons, 10 were upheld and only one was reduced.
The appeal will be heard by three committee members, chosen from a group of 44 panel members that consists of former drivers, former car owners, former crew chiefs, track operators and other officials. All panel members are listed in NASCAR’s rule book.
NASCAR on Monday said its policy was to not reveal in advance who will hear an appeal, nor would series officials divulge how the panel members are assigned to each hearing.
Retired driver Kyle Petty was critical of the process in Sunday’s pre-race show on SPEED, claiming some of the members “may have passed away since their names were put in here, that’s how old these people are.”
Although it was an exaggeration on Petty’s part, he’s not wrong in wondering how many of the appeals board members are in touch with the inner workings of present day NASCAR.
“These people don’t go to the race track, they don’t understand the process. They’re great business people. They’re past drivers, champions, past sports car racers, past engine builders,” Petty said. “I think (Knaus and Johnson) should be judged by their peers. In this environment we race in today, if you commit a crime or you do something, you should be judged by people who understand the sport and what is going on.”
But that’s what Knaus is up against Tuesday. He’s worked hard the last two races since NASCAR announced his punishment, guiding Johnson to a fourth-place finish at Phoenix and a second-place finish at Las Vegas.
The finishes have boosted Johnson, who was docked 25 points as part of the penalty, from 43rd in the Sprint Cup standings to 23rd. It’s also been a strong statement that the team is tough enough — even coming off of last year’s career-worst sixth-place finish in the standings — to handle this storm.
What happens with Knaus on the bench remains to be seen, because his best-case scenario is getting a reduction on the six-race suspension. When he returns, whenever that is, it’s guaranteed he’ll be back with a vengeance and out to find every loophole in the NASCAR rule book.