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Penalty reversal the end of an era

There is sea change in NASCAR. Hanging judges no longer rule unfettered, solely on the say-so of sheriffs.

Seventy-four years of stock car racing precedent, dating back to before there even was a NASCAR, essentially was upended by the decision that came down Tuesday.

The ruling is so landmark in its realm that it deserves an honorary legal title, Hendrick v. NASCAR.

Never have I seen NASCAR's enforcers get slapped with such a public reprimand, albeit de facto, for going too far, too fast.

Last-chance appellate officer John Middlebrook rescinded the six-race suspensions of No. 48 crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec, and the 25-point penalties against driver Jimmie Johnson and technical car owner Jeff Gordon, who is a financial partner in the Hendrick Motorsports empire.

Middlebrook left Knaus with a $100,000 fine, but that was about like the judge fining John Scopes $100 in the Monkey Trial.

For a month the suspension and points penalties had loomed, not because NASCAR caught any cheating scientifically but because the 48 car just looked wrong to the enforcers.

There'd been trial and conviction by eyeball.

Frontier justice.

That's pretty much how stock car racing had been regulated since 1938, when Bill France Sr., a decade before he founded NASCAR, promoted his first race.

Big Bill disqualified the winner, Smokey Purser, with no physical evidence.

It was all circumstantial: Purser drove under the checkered flag on Daytona Beach and just kept on going, right past the inspection station, and disappeared. By the time Big Bill's enforcers caught up with him at his shop, Purser had legal cylinder heads on his Ford, though quite possibly -- but not definitely -- installed on the spot.

He was disqualified anyway, which led to another tricky situation. The second-place finisher was the driver/promoter Bill France. So to avoid uproar, he gave the first-place money to the third-place finisher.

And so it had gone, pretty much, until Tuesday.

All those years, violations were violations because NASCAR said so. The prolific violator Junior Johnson always said you did what you had to do in the gray areas, made your technical innovations as best you could, and then went to the track and let NASCAR decide whether it was cheating or not.

Penalties were as stiff as NASCAR chose. To appeal was to face rubber-stamp tribunals largely beholden to the iron fist of NASCAR.

Oh, there was a complete reversal of penalties in 2005, but it was pipsqueak: There was "insufficient evidence" that Michael Waltrip had flipped off Robby Gordon during a wreck.

This time the reversal was profound, far-reaching, monumental. This was about NASCAR's previously unfettered power to enforce technological rules -- or indeed, interpret rules on the spot in whatever ways it chose.

Hendrick v. NASCAR arose from a blatant case of over-punishment in a situation in which the most common, and common-sense, thing to do would have been for inspectors to say, simply, "Go fix this, and bring it back through the line."

That has happened hundreds if not thousands of times in NASCAR, and the public never heard about it. Didn't need to, because it didn't matter once the race rolled around.

But for whatever reasons, this current regime of NASCAR enforcers has chosen to put on show trials from time to time. Thus they made a federal case out of suspect C-posts, spotted and then changed long before the race, at Daytona.

This time, team owner Rick Hendrick had had enough. He systematically documented and proved to Middlebrook that at Daytona there had been numerous instances that same week in which the fix-and-return order was given without further consequences. Hendrick also showed that the same 48 car with the same configuration had been passed by NASCAR inspectors for previous races.

Further, Hendrick got the fundamental right of confronting his accuser. His people were allowed to question the arresting officer, Sprint Cup director John Darby, the one who had made the eyeball call.

True, Middlebrook, from his past as a General Motors executive, is an old friend of Hendrick. But what were the former drivers, owners, track operators and manufacturer reps who comprised NASCAR tribunals if not old friends of NASCAR?

And all evidence is that Middlebrook acted objectively, in the only way he could in the face of fairly considered documentation.

Now, barring a blatant and very public reversal by NASCAR of its evolution out of frontier justice, Hendrick v. NASCAR promises to stand as case law, perhaps even "settled law," as they say in the courts, in rules enforcement.

My colleague Terry Blount and I had the same thought immediately after the ruling: It will be interesting indeed to see whether Middlebrook's power is removed or diluted in the coming months -- whether he is relieved of his position, or joined by other appellate officers of NASCAR's choosing.

We should be vigilant for such shenanigans, given NASCAR's history of manipulation.

But I don't think NASCAR chairman Brian France will allow any such thing. He has come too far toward his own kind of glasnost and perestroika, away from draconian rule, to turn back now.

I've always suspected there was an element of ego in the cat-and-mouse game between NASCAR enforcers and the wiliest crew chiefs and owners -- a sort of Lt. Gerard obsession in the "Fugitive."

In recent years it has been Darby and NASCAR competition vice president Robin Pemberton all over Knaus. Before that, Gary Nelson was a hawk on Ray Evernham's shoulder … Dick Beatty on Richard Childress' … Bill Gazaway on Junior Johnson's …

This time, Darby and Pemberton were told, in essence, they should have gotten a writ of habeas corpus -- sufficient evidence that a crime had even been committed.

Thus ends the longest-running frontier-justice system in sports.