No. 48 team will work hard to rebound

I have to preface all of this by saying that these are my thoughts, and I’m not saying this because Chad Knaus is a friend of mine, because we work together on "NASCAR Performance" on SPEED, or anything like that. This is how I truly feel:

I was not surprised when I saw the penalties handed out to the No. 48 team (25-point deduction, $100,000 fine for crew chief Knaus, and six-week suspension for Knaus and car chief Ron Malec) for illegally modified sheet metal in the C-posts area.

That said, I hate it for the No. 48 team. Knaus is just a very aggressive crew chief. But you know what? That’s why he has won 53 races and five championships in 13 years atop the box. That’s the bottom line. He’s no more aggressive than I was when I was a crew chief, it’s just the penalties weren’t a 10th of a percent of what they are today when I was doing that stuff. I’m sure my fellow NASCAR on FOX analyst Jeff Hammond would say the same thing.

But NASCAR has said, adamantly, that this car that was introduced in 2007 was not to be messed with. They spelled out what teams can do, what they can’t do and what they are not going to do. They made that statement in June 2007, ironically, when Knaus and Steve Letarte (Jeff Gordon’s crew chief at the time) monkeyed with the body of the race car (fender manipulation) in between the templates.

If you’re confused, you’re not alone. I’m often asked to explain what the templates are all about:

When I first came into the sport, we had templates — and they were the bare minimum; we had a full-body template that ran across the center of a car from back to the front, I think we had four cross templates that measured the width of a car — and that’s pretty much it.

Then NASCAR got smarter and realized teams got more and more aggressive. Spin it ahead to right before this current car. NASCAR still let you work between the templates, but you had a lot more of them (something like 18 to 20 templates).

Then NASCAR introduced this version of the race car in 2007. It has a ton of templates, including a grid of templates we commonly refer to as “The Claw,” but it also, as Robin Pemberton explained to me, is a “gold surface” — which is almost like you have a CAD drawing of how the car body is to be configured. It’s black or it’s white.

I think this is NASCAR’s way of making a statement. To me, if you have not gotten on the racetrack and received an advantage in competition — be it qualifying or the race — I will always question such stiff penalties. Remember, Johnson and Co. fit into this — they failed inspection before the first practice for the Daytona 500; they had not been on track yet. But that’s what NASCAR has been doing for a number of years now, and we’ve all known it. If you unload your car for inspection and it has a severe rules infraction, it doesn’t matter if the car ever got off the jackstand or left the garage — you are subject to pretty stiff penalties.

If NASCAR had gone with a lesser penalty, the only thing that would’ve done is made a statement to the garage that messing with the body wasn’t as critical now as it was a few years ago. So NASCAR must’ve felt it had to do it this way.

I’ve heard the team make the case that the car that failed inspection has been run that way before. I’ve tried that before; it doesn’t matter. NASCAR President Mike Helton did say this: If you go down the interstate doing 90 mph 15 times, are you going to get stopped all 15 times? Probably not. But it’s still illegal. You can’t tell the police officer you did that before — it doesn’t work that way. It just means you didn’t get caught.

Now, Hendrick Motorsports is appealing the penalties. But I’ve got to tell you, folks, I’d be shocked if they reverse the penalties. I personally hope they do because I have a lot of respect for Chad Knaus, but I don’t see the appeals committee overturning this decision. I’m sorry, I don’t see it because the committee has shown in the past that it doesn’t like teams messing around in between the templates.

NASCAR also suspended Malec. So that’s equivalent to the team losing its head coach in Knaus and its assistant head coach in Malec.

Are these penalties going to deteriorate Team 48? Probably not. I don’t want to underestimate the importance of those two at the track guiding this ship, but Knaus is still going to guide this ship. He’s still going to prepare these cars at the shop. He’s still going to draw up the game plan. He just won’t be at the racetrack. Remember, Knaus has been suspended before — and in 2006, Darian Grubb led Team 48 to two wins in the four races he was gone (including the Daytona 500 that year).

It’s just a bad deal. I hate it for that whole crew — it’s not the way you want to start a season off. Add in the team’s 42nd-place finish at Daytona and now they are at negative points going into Phoenix this weekend. It’s not the end of the world, but not how you want to start what you hope is a championship run.