Jimmie Johnson (48) is pursued by Juan Pablo Montoya (42) and Gregg Biffle (16) during the Toyota/Save Mart 350 Nextel Cup race on Sunday. Montoya won to earn his first Nextel Cup winAP photo
When six crew members were thrown out of the Daytona 500 for cheating it was suggested that NASCAR start suspending drivers as part of the penalty process.
Jimmie Johnson was aghast at the idea.
The defending Nextel Cup champion said he has no idea what crew chief Chad Knaus does while building his race cars. And even if Johnson were privy to such information, he has no control in how his Chevrolets are constructed.
Johnson’s defense is at the very core of why NASCAR should start suspending its drivers. Benching the star of the team would force him to take responsibility for his crew.
Nothing else is working.
Johnson and teammate Jeff Gordon both showed up in Sonoma, Calif., with cars that failed initial inspection, and NASCAR refused to let them on the track Friday. But they still were allowed to race Sunday, and crew chiefs Knaus and Steve Letarte were both on site to guide their drivers to decent finishes. Gordon finished seventh and Johnson 17th.
Now they wait and wonder what further punishment NASCAR will impose. Penalties are traditionally issued on Tuesdays.
“All of us are blown away and we don’t know what’s coming next,” Gordon said. “We are at the mercy of NASCAR and I hope they are light on us, but who knows?”
That there’s any doubt in what the penalties will be stems from decades of inconsistency when it comes to enforcing the rules and doling out the punishment.
Cheating has long been celebrated as a quaint piece of NASCAR culture that even has its own slogan — “If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin.”’ There’s long been a blurry territory of what is flagrant, what is working the margins of the rule book and what is a simple mistake.
Hendrick Motorsports is using that defense following this latest infraction, with team owner Rick Hendrick contending his crew chiefs were working within a “gray area” of the rule book.
“I don’t necessarily say they bent the rules — I think they thought they were working inside an area in which they could,” Hendrick said. “It’s going to be tough, as we go forward, on what’s intentional and what’s accidental and how they handle it, so you’re definitely going to have to show up with these things measured up.”
Here’s the issue the Hendrick guys aren’t understanding: There is no “gray area” anymore.
NASCAR is serious about its new Car of Tomorrow, and has made it clear it won’t tolerate any alterations in its design. In fact, series officials distributed a memo before the car debuted in March that outlined the penalties teams would be subjected to if they were caught messing with the COT.
So it was no surprise to anyone, Hendrick teams included, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. was docked 100 points and crew chief Tony Eury Jr. was suspended six weeks and fined $100,000 when their COT failed a May inspection.
The Hendrick teams most likely will get the same punishment — although some argue Knaus’ past infractions should warrant a much stiffer penalty because anything short of what Earnhardt and Eury received would seem unfair.
Problem is, it’s probably not enough to even dent the Hendrick juggernaut.
Even after a 100-point penalty, Gordon would still be leading the Nextel Cup standings by 171 points. Johnson would drop from third to fifth. The monetary fines are irrelevant, and Hendrick proved last year it can overcome the absence of a crew chief when Johnson won twice during Knaus’ four-race suspension.
And, don’t think for a minute that Knaus and Letarte won’t spend their free weekends back at the Hendrick compound making sure their program is locked and loaded for when the Chase for the championship begins in September.
What kind of message would it send if Knaus and Letarte, who have combined to win eight races this season, return after a suspension more dominant than they already are?
If NASCAR is serious about taking a stand, and chairman Brian France said Sunday officials “have to lay down the law,” then it’s time to suspend the driver.
The driver is the most high-profile member of the team, and if he’s at risk for going home, chances are he’d keep a very close eye on those charged with building his car.
And the fans don’t care if Knaus or Eury or any other crew chief isn’t on top of the pit box come race day. But they certainly wouldn’t be pleased if Earnhardt, Johnson and Gordon weren’t on the track.
NASCAR believes suspending drivers punishes the fans. Even better, because it would create more pressure on the driver to keep his team from breaking the rules.
There’s no gray anymore, not according to NASCAR, which insists it’s all black and white these days. But that message will never be delivered until NASCAR proves it with a penalty system that officially frightens its competitors.