Monday, June 25, 2007

The Gordon/Johnson Controversy: What Was Lost, What We Have Learned

Assuming they are penalized later this week in a manner similar to Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s Darlington penalty (100 points, $100,000 and a six-week crewchief suspension), what will the Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports teams really lose?

A 100-point penalty will not remove either team from Chase For The Nextel Cup contention. Not even close.

A $100,000 fine will bankrupt nobody. The light bill will be paid at Hendrick Motorsports this month, and the payroll will be met.

Six-week suspensions for Chad Knaus and Steve Letarte will be dealt with, and overcome. Both men will continue to work in the Hendrick Motorsports shops, arguably making their cars better on arrival at the racetrack than they would have been otherwise. In terms of personnel, HMS is the deepest team in NASCAR, and they won’t miss a beat.

Starting in the back of the pack Sunday certainly did not cripple either Gordon or Johnson. Both ran in the Top-10 during the race, with Gordon finishing seventh and Johnson 17th. That’s not exactly the death penalty, especially when you recall that Ward Burton and Scott Riggs went home Friday, bumped from the starting lineup by cars that had not even made a qualifying attempt.

Johnson and Gordon were even allowed to run their primary cars at Infineon, after reworking their modified front fenders.

Not surprisingly, team owner Rick Hendrick defended his teams' handiwork, saying, "I don't necessarily say they bent the rules, I think they thought they were working inside an area in which they could. The fenders on the car are sitting out there in front of God and everybody, so if you're going to try to do something to gain an advantage, you wouldn't do it rolling through inspection.

"I think it's a gray area...unless you've got a digital machine here and you're going to coordinates-measure everything."

NASCAR's Ramsey Poston disagreed, telling Sirius Speedway Friday that the entire COT body has been digitally mapped, and that teams are well aware of the importance of meeting all the criteria, not just in those areas where the template touches the body.

Interestingly, only two of Hendrick's four car failed pre-qualifying inspection Friday. Teammates Kyle Busch and Casey Mears breezed through the tech line, with no problems found on their cars. Why the difference?

Some garage area railbirds point out that unlike their teammates, Busch and Mears has plenty to lose by being found out of compliance in inspection. Busch is 10th in Nextel Cup points -- just two spots away from being out of the Chase -- while Mears struggles to gain admittance to the postseason dance in 20th place. Obviously, neither the #5 nor #25 team can afford to forfeit 100 points right now.

The Hendrick cars that needed to start well Sunday passed inspection with flying colors. The cars that did not... did not. Coincidence? Maybe.

Some valuable lessons were learned Friday in Sonoma.

For instance, we now know that under NASCAR’s Top-35 Qualifying System, it is possible to qualify for a race without actually attempting to do so. Based on this information, a team in the Top-35 in Owners Points could theoretically show up at New Hampshire International Speedway Sunday morning, unload their car, place it on the tail of the field and demand inclusion in the race.

Not only is it no longer necessary to be fast on Qualifying Day, it’s apparently not even necessary to be present.

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