Skating away

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. – As his driver Jimmie Johnson completed his 267th safe, smart lap here to claim his second consecutive Nextel Cup championship, Chad Knaus stood on pit road and gave Johnson's wife Chandra a hug and a kiss on top of her head.

Chandra was bawling tears of joy, and Knaus just smiled at it.

"Come on, Chandra, it's the second time around," he said. "You should be used to it."

It was business as usual here for Knaus, who accepted the congratulatory backslaps and hugs you'd expect of a crew chief on top of his game. As much as any "coach" figure in sports, Knaus is dominating his competition; running roughshod in a way that would make even Bill Belichick jealous.

Of course, his six-race suspension earlier this year for breaking NASCAR rules, on top of the four-race suspension last season, on top of six other disciplines, including two other suspensions, in the past six years, might make Belichick blush, too.

In the unique culture of NASCAR, a habitual cheat of a crew chief just won the title again and no one apparently cared.

As the rest of the American sports world – from baseball and football to track and cycling – seems to wrestle with asterisks and vacated titles, Knaus – banned from the track for an astounding one-sixth of the season – was free to celebrate the night away with an apparent clear conscience.

"It's going to be fun in South Beach tonight," he said, smiling.

You could say NASCAR has it all wrong, but who knows, maybe they have it all right. Maybe there is something to the idea of letting what's won, be won. And then move on.

Forget the hand-wringing about Barry Bonds, the preemptive asterisk talk about the New England Patriots or the endless doping denials and trials of Floyd Landis (among scores of other scandals).

Knaus served his latest lengthy suspension, and when it was over it was if he were a hockey player freed from the penalty box. He got to just skate away.

Heck, hardly a word about it was heard, especially this week.

ESPN's broadcast Sunday never mentioned the mid-summer scandal. Nor was there any talk that Knaus is part of a Hendrick Motorsports team that saw contender Jeff Gordon's crew chief Steve Letarte also get hit with the same six-week suspension, $100,000 fine and 100-point penalty on the driver.

There is simply no way a Super Bowl broadcast featuring the Patriots this year doesn't mention Belichick's spying scandal.

Of course, some fans certainly do discuss it. Johnson was again booed during driver introductions here at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Some fans complain that the top two cars are both from Hendrick, which seems to have trouble with the rule book.

Knaus was hit with a blistering six-week suspension this year when Johnson's car was discovered to have a fender adjusted outside of NASCAR specs prior to a race in Sonoma. Last year, his one-month sit down came when Johnson's rearview window was found installed in a way that would provide superior aerodynamics for the Daytona 500. All of this came after six other disciplinary actions since 2002.

For this guy, getting caught is apparently just the cost of doing business.

"Every word in the rule book has a space between it, and that's where you look for an advantage," Knaus told Sports Illustrated this year. "The perception of me being a cheater is not true at all. I just try to find a loophole and explore that."

That kind of talk is why some fans roll their eyes at the recurring coincidence that Johnson keeps trotting out a monster car at just the right time of the season.

This year he took over the Chase with a virtually unheard of four consecutive victories coming into Sunday's finale. In 2006 he seized command with a run of one victory and four seconds in the heart of the Chase.

"I'm very proud of what we were able to do," Knaus said after Johnson finished seventh to clinch his second consecutive title.

NASCAR, of course, traces its roots back to the bootlegging days of the rural South. And back in 1949, in a stock car circuit that was a precursor to NASCAR, the winner of the first race had his victory stripped for having an illegal shock absorber.

More than any sport, the idea that if "you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin'" has long been accepted. It's part of the appeal to some.

So Knaus felt free to return from suspension and just shrug his shoulders at authority.

"I don't feel any regret, remorse or anything like that," Knaus said at the time. "Am I sorry I missed the races? Am I sorry that I wasn't there? Absolutely. But regret or remorse, no. That's not even an option."

In all likelihood, there isn't another crew chief so angelic that he could cast a first stone publicly anyway, although finding one to cast aspersions off the record isn't difficult.

In NASCAR you tinker with your car. You push the envelope. You try to innovate. You bristle at authority. You do whatever it takes, apparently. Or at least you do at Hendrick, which considering it has the most money and all these famous drivers, shouldn't need to cheat.

But the ethics of other sports don't apply here. What other leagues claim to consider distasteful, what they get raked over the coals for in the media, what they get called in front of Congress for, in NASCAR, it's all just part of the deal.

NASCAR claims that it has made a point to crack down on violations with the cars. And there were a record number of crew chiefs sat down this year. And Knaus himself has been part of three of the most significant penalties in NASCAR history.

But still, Johnson won anyway, didn't he?

"Seeing a guy win 10 races, I thought that era was over," said Kurt Busch, shaking his head in awe of Johnson's incredible season. "They put together a stretch run that probably will never be matched."

You'd suspiciously wonder how, but apparently you'd be the only one.

Here, the second time around with these guys, everyone should just be used to it, and they are.