Just before the Good Sam's 500 began at Talladega on Sunday, 48 team crew chief Chad Knaus leaned into Jimmie Johnson's car and gave him some curious instructions. And while this kind of thing goes on all the time, what made this moment different is that it was broadcast on NASCAR.com's RaceBuddy, recorded by an enterprising fan, and posted on SB Nation.
What were those instructions? This: "If we win this race, you have to crack the back of the car," Knaus said. "Got it?"
"Really?" Johnson replied.
"Yes," Knaus continued. "Got it? You don't have to have to hit it hard, you don't have to destroy it. But you've gotta do a donut and you've gotta hit the back end, or somebody's gotta hit you in the ass-end or something. OK?"
The idea is this: Knaus was concerned that bump-drafting could push the car beyond NASCAR's engineering tolerances. Given the 48 team's history of getting just a bit fancy with the rules, there was legitimate concern that they could be docked points despite running a completely legal car. The car which Johnson drove on Sunday was the same one which won at Talladega in the spring.
"If you have significant damage back there from the bumping and the contact, you're fine and NASCAR knows that's happened within the window of racing," Johnson told ESPN's Nicole Briscoe on Wednesday. "You come back with the car moved around and you're outside of where the tolerances are, you've got an issue. So Chad was just making sure that I was aware of that."
Tempting as it may be for some to blame Knaus for this and accuse him of cheating ... well, I guess he kind of is, technically speaking, but this could well be more a "you can't fire me, I quit" sort of situation. Everyone in the garage observed what happened to Clint Bowyer last year at Loudon when his car was found to be out of tolerances by hundredths of an inch — a season-killing penalty. And you don't need to be a mechanical engineer to understand that having another car hammer on your bumper for 500 miles might possibly affect your car's shape.
On the other hand, if someone had indeed made minor, extralegal adjustments to a car — affecting downforce by adjusting alignment, say — whacking the back end of the car into the Talladega retaining wall would do a very good job of covering those tracks. Just saying. (Knaus, when asked by SB Nation if there was something untoward on the back of the car, replied, "I don't think that's a fair assessment." He noted that the car was inspected three times prior to the Talladega race.)
Bottom line, we could be talking about more of those unintended consequences that always seem to well up whenever you've got a radical departure from the norm, as 2x2 racing certainly is. Even so, NASCAR officials made it known that they will be taking a closer look at what Knaus may or may not have been implying.
"We became aware of this piece of audio this morning and certainly want to get all the facts before making an opinion and reaching any conclusions," NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp said. "We'll visit with the parties and pull all the facts together best we can. While Talladega is done and the No. 48 was not the winning or random car, we certainly have an interest in getting the facts straight on behalf of the balance of the competitors."
No telling how this could shake out, but you can bet that crew chiefs are going to be paying a lot closer attention to when they are and aren't being recorded.
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- Chad Knaus
- Jimmie Johnson