On Tuesday, a three-member NASCAR appeals panel upheld a penalty NASCAR handed down to Sprint Cup Series team owner Rick Hendrick’s No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team after that team failed an inspection prior to this year’s running of the Daytona 500.
The Hendrick team in question, with five-time series champion driver Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, was found with illegal C-posts (the area of sheet metal connecting the rear quarter panel to the roof) during the inspection well before the running of the Daytona 500.
Knaus was fined $100,000 and suspended for six races, car chief Ron Malec was also handed a six-race suspension, and Johnson was docked 25 points in the Sprint Cup standings.
Hendrick will now take his efforts to have the punishment changed to the final level of appeal, pleading his case to NASCAR chief appellate officer John Middlebrook.
It’s no surprise that Hendrick will take the appeal as far as he can, though the reality is, he should be celebrating the fact that he operates in a sport where the punishments that come with cheating have little teeth in the big picture.
The time has come for NASCAR to put some true bite behind punishment. If you want to stop the crime make the consequences so dire nobody but the craziest or most daring would chance the punishment. That means get rid of the crew chief suspensions or car chief suspensions or silly monetary fines. The only real way to get the message across today is for NASCAR to suspend a team’s driver.
In every walk of life, be it sports or otherwise, punishment is supposed to not only be a penalty for committing an act outside of accepted standard rules or laws, but also should stand as a deterrent for committing unacceptable acts again, not only for those committing the initial act but also for those watching.
In society people understand if you commit a crime and get caught it comes with consequences, with punishment. If there was no punishment we’d likely all be out robbing banks. Therein lies the deterrent factor.
But what happens when you create a system where punishment really doesn’t stand as a deterrent? That is the system NASCAR has created.
Before this season Knaus had been penalized nine times for various infractions as a crew chief and suspended three times. In 2006, Johnson won the Daytona 500, with Knaus under suspension from the team for violations. The team went on that year to win its first Sprint Cup Series championship. The last suspension for Knaus came in 2007, and the team went on to win its second consecutive championship, despite the Knaus suspension.
One of NASCAR’s most penalized cheaters also has more Sprint Cup Series championships than any other crew chief currently in the garage. What message does that send to others working in the garage? It says cheating pays, and it pays well. If we all knew we could be multi-millionaires for going to jail, wouldn’t we all want to do a pinch? The culture created by NASCAR with weak punishment is one that says ‘Keep on punishing us over and over, it doesn’t scare us one bit.’
Sure, NASCAR has long been a bastion where cheating is considered an accepted part of the sport, even a badge of honor for those that do it better than anybody else. But the message NASCAR should be sending today is that cheating will not be accepted, and more importantly, it will come with true punishment.
Where is the teeth in suspending a crew chief? In today’s world, the technology exists for a crew chief to be sitting in an airport in Dubai directing his team in Darlington. Money? Money means nothing to guys who gas up private jets in the way the average Joe fills the tank on his Corolla.
And points? Well, NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship has taken much of the sting away from a points penalty. Does anybody really think Jimmie Johnson isn’t going to make up that 25-point deficit and qualify for the Chase for the Championship? And then, the points are refigured and essentially that points penalty doesn’t exist any longer.
Though, the fact is, NASCAR is afraid to offer true punishment. NASCAR is afraid of sitting its stars out. It’s been that way since day one in the sport. NASCAR has always had a philosophy that the stars must be in the show. That’s why for years there were provisionals offered, free passes into the event for the sport’s biggest names. That’s why today the sport has the ridiculous top-35 rule, which has made race qualifying an exercise nearly devoid of competition in the Sprint Cup Series.
Sometimes in the PGA, Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson don’t make the cut. And guess what, the PGA doesn’t collapse because of it. Sometimes in the NBA Kobe Bryant or LeBron James are hurt and don’t play, it hardly puts the league on the brink of folding.
Would a segment of fans be upset if their driver was suspended for an event they planned on attending? Sure they would. So what, life goes on and they’re probably still going to attend the race.
It’s time for NASCAR to grow up and realize to stop cheating the sport needs to create a true deterrent system and having a team face the possibility that its driver could be suspended is the only thing that could do that.
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