DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Hendrick Motorsports is not satisfied with the process that resulted in Jimmie Johnson's Daytona 500 car failing inspection, and if a penalty is handed down – as NASCAR president Mike Helton has intimated – team owner Rick Hendrick would appeal.
At issue is how NASCAR deemed Johnson's car to be "outside of what [its] tolerances are." NASCAR's determination Friday that the "C-posts" (the area under repair in the picture to the right) on Johnson's No. 48 were incorrect came via a visual inspection, not by using a metal template or "claw" placed on top of the car.
This raised a red flag in the Hendrick camp.
"We're confused. We're puzzled," said Ken Howes, Hendrick's vice president of competition. "Most of the time, we're comfortable [with the inspection process]. NASCAR works hard; their officials work hard to make things fair – 99.9 percent of the time it works. And every now and then something happens to confuse you, and here we are."
NASCAR's inspection process is a slow and meticulous one that can take 10 hours and more than 80 officials to complete. Teams prepare the cars, present them to NASCAR for inspection, then watch as every nook and cranny is measured, using very precise tools, down to the tiniest fraction of an inch. Even slightly wrong is wrong.
With measurements this small, how can a car be determined out of tolerance with nothing more than a visual inspection? That's a question Rick Hendrick is asking.
"I don't like it when someone says I just don't like the looks of it and never put the plate down on it," Hendrick told ESPN.com. When asked if he thinks NASCAR could be targeting the 48 because of an incident last year involving crew chief Chad Knaus, Hendrick responded, "Maybe you can put it together."
Last October, an in-car audio recording caught Knaus telling Johnson prior to the race at Talladega to "crack the back of the car," the inference being that the crew chief was trying to cover up something. NASCAR didn't penalize Knaus for his instructions to Johnson, saying audio alone wasn't enough to warrant a punishment, though it did send every one of Johnson's cars back to its R&D center for further inspection following each of the remaining races of the 2011 season.
The car in question now was used four times last season and has been to NASCAR's R&D center for inspection, Hendrick told ESPN.com. He added that his crew swears the roof hasn't been altered other than the addition of a coat of paint. It's for these reasons that Hendrick appears to be implying that NASCAR could be out to get Knaus, who has a history of trying to skirt the rules.
"That's bull----," Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition, told Yahoo! Sports on Sunday at Daytona International Speedway. "We're out here to make sure there's a level playing field for all competitors. Whether there's 33 or 53 here racing, everybody gets a fair shake. The garage area expects us to make sure that everybody gets a fair shake."
Pemberton wouldn't speak to Hendrick's not-so-veiled implication that Knaus is in the crosshairs, sticking by NASCAR's initial stance that an infraction was "discovered in pre-race inspection going through the templates." He went on to explain, however, that the inspection process is more than just templates; that the car is under review whether it's under a metal claw or simply parked in the garage.
"It doesn't matter," Pemberton said when asked if Johnson's car failed inspection prior to being subjected to a template check. "Because from the time we open until the time we close, we inspect all the time. … It doesn't matter the timing of it. It could have been before or after anything."
NASCAR stated it will wait until after the Feb. 26 Daytona 500 to determine what, if any, penalties will be enforced as a result of the failed inspection. However, on Friday Helton told the Associated Press the incident "will warrant a reaction from us more so than what you've seen already – more than what we've done so far."
If a penalty does come down, Hendrick is prepared to appeal.
"That's his intention," said Howes.
For now, Johnson and Knaus are allowed to go through Speedweeks with a new set of C-posts welded onto the 48, which will start sixth in Thursday's Gatorade Duel 2.
"I'm sitting back watching and wondering like everyone else is what's gonna happen," Johnson said, "and certainly feel that we have a case to stress that nothing should happen."
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