A NASCAR appeals panel has unanimously upheld the ruling that the #48 car of Jimmie Johnson contained illegal bodywork modifications when presented for scrutineering at Daytona in February, and confirmed the penalties applied by NASCAR.
The National Stock Car Racing Appeals Panel spent several hours hearing witnesses and reviewing evidence before upholding the findings and the penalties that had been imposed on the team, Jimmie Johnson, his crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec.
Johnson lost 25 Sprint Cup championship points and the team lost the same number of car owner points. Knaus and Malec have to serve a six race suspension until April 18, and are under NASCAR probation through to May 9. Knaus has additionally been given a $100,000 fine.
"Upon hearing the testimony, carefully reviewing the facts and historically comparative penalties, the unanimous decision of the National Stock Car Racing Appeals Panel was to uphold the original penalties assessed by NASCAR," read the official announcement of Tuesday's appeal.
Rick Hendrick, the owner of Hendrick Motorsports, was very unhappy with the outcome, saying: "I don't agree with it. Period." The team confirmed that it was going to exercise its right of final appeal to the National Stock Car Racing chief appellate officer.
“The panel was generous with its time today, and we appreciated the opportunity to talk through our concerns,” said Hendrick in a statement. "We feel strongly about this issue and will continue to pursue it at the next level."
NASCAR made no comment beyond the official statement, and Hendrick did not want to get drawn on the case that his team had mounted at today's hearing. "It's best that I just wait until we go through all the processes," he said. "There is nothing for me to talk about that you don't already know."
No timeframe was given for holding the final appeal, but it's likely to be within the next ten days and certainly not before this weekend's race at Bristol Motor Speedway. In the meantime, the team confirmed that Knaus and Malec would not begin their suspensions until the final appeal was heard and that personnel adjustments were not planned in the meantime and that no plans had been decided for who would take over the roles of crew chief and car chief it it came down to that.
While the points deduction is clearly not a good way to start the season, it's probably the lesser headache for the team. Points can be clawed back, and the #48 has since followed up a disastrous Daytona with two strong races that have already begin the process or repairing the damage. Much more serious would be losing Knaus from the pit box for another six races.
This week's initial appeal had been delayed because of teams having to relocate in a hurry toward to America's southwest for the races at Phoenix and Las Vegas after the late-running Daytona 500, and this is the first week that they have been back in NASCAR heartland around North Carolina to hold the hearing.
The three-person panel that voted on this week's appeal consisted of former USAC chairman John Capels, former IRL and Goodyear executive Leo Mehl and Dale Pinilis, operator of Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem. Appellate Administrator Ed Bennet was a non-voting member of the panel.
The National Stock Car Racing chief appellate officer who will deliver the final ruling on the appeal is former General Motors Executive John Middlebrook, who took over the $1 a year job in February 2010. He did previously rule on penalties imposed on Clint Bowyer and his crew for a rules violation at the start of the 2010 Chase, upholding a big points deduction on the driver and team but reducing the suspension on crew chief Shane Wilson from six weeks to four and lowering the fine imposed on Wilson from $150,000 to $100,000.
Middlebrook's role is to read over the transcripts of the separate private presentations made by NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports to today's appeal panel, and then to meet with all the participants in one combined meeting to ask any further outstanding questions.
"Coming off of a unanimous decision, I really think Hendrick Motorsports has a slim-to-none chance of this being overturned by Mr Middlebrook," former Cup driver Kyle Petty told the SPEED cable channel. "If it had been a split decision, I think Hendrick's chances in the next appeal still would be questionable, but I don't see how Mr Middlebrook can do anything but uphold the panel's ruling."
The modifications at issue are to the so-called C-posts or pillars that join the roof of the car to the main deck. Since they can be used to help direct the airflow onto the rear spoiler of the car, an aerodynamic advantage can be achieved by changes to this part of the bodywork. However, Knaus says that no such modifications have been made to the car since it last passed scrutineering multiple times at the end of 2011; the team also took issue with the way that the C-posts were ruled to have been illegally modified even though the Daytona stewards did not take detailed measurements or make reference to equivalent standard template parts.
The penalties were levied under Section 12-1 of the NASCAR Rule Book which is related to “Actions detrimental to stock car racing,” Section 12-4(J) which covers “Any determination by NASCAR Officials that the Race Equipment used in the Event does not conform to NASCAR rules detailed in Section 20 of the NASCAR Rule Book, or has not been approved by NASCAR prior to the Event” and also Section 20-2.1(E) which says “If in the judgement of NASCAR Officials, any part or component of the car not previously approved by NASCAR that has been installed or modified to enhance aerodynamic performance, will not be permitted: Unapproved car body modifications."
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