Commentary

5 and 48 pushing rules to the limit

Updated: October 2, 2009, 3:34 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Nothing like a little controversy and intrigue to spice things up.

Officially, the cars of Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin passed a postrace inspection last weekend at Dover International Speedway.

Barely.

After further inspection this week at NASCAR's R&D Center in Concord, N.C., both teams pushed the envelope right to the edge without suffering a paper cut.

NASCAR inspectors found that both cars were in the gray area of tolerance limits on height and width measurements (seven one-thousandths of an inch) at several spots on the body.

[+] EnlargeChad Knaus
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireChad Knaus has been considered an innovator, and the car he put under Jimmie Johnson for the AAA 400 victory last Sunday apparently fit that bill.

Sprint Cup director John Darby had a message for both Hendrick Motorsports teams.

"Don't put it so close that your head's in the guillotine and somebody is holding a lighter on the rope," Darby said Friday at Kansas Speedway.

"We owe it to a team to say, 'What are you doing? It's stupid. It's not worth it.'"

In case you haven't noticed, the No. 5 Chevrolet that Martin drives and the No. 48 Chevy of three-time champion Johnson are better than everyone else's.

Martin won the first Chase race. Johnson won the second at Dover, and Martin was the runner-up. Martin, who has a series-best five victories, leads the Chase standings. Johnson, who has four wins, is 10 points behind his Hendrick Motorsports teammate.

These guys are good. Real good.

Whenever that happens in the Sprint Cup garage, people start to wonder why. Some people start to question it, believing those cars are a little too good.

"It just magnifies it, and rumors start," Darby said. "Every conversation today, the [tolerance] measurement gets bigger and bigger. It just tells you how competitive these guys are."

It's human nature to say: "Hey, those guys can't be that much better than us. They must be doing something wrong."

Accusations start to fly, fairly or unfairly. And it doesn't help quell the firestorm when you have a crew chief with a history of time in the penalty box.

Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief, is seen by many as the best technical mind in the sport. Others see him as evil genius because of past suspensions for illegal cars.

"We've had our issues," Knaus said Friday. "With what's happened to me in the past, the last thing I want is another closed-door meeting with [NASCAR president] Mike Helton.

"We're not gonna go down that path. We've worked really hard to clean up the reputation of this 48 team. We hold that to the highest integrity."

Getting caught cheating at this point would be foolish. Johnson is trying to win his fourth consecutive championship. Martin is hoping to win his first. Risking noncompliance on rules is not an option.

That's Darby's point. We're talking about tiny numbers on the limit. The 48 and 5 didn't have a thousandth of an inch to spare in some spots.

"When we get close to that line, we have to understand why," Knaus said. "This is the first time we've had that, and we've been through these inspections more than anyone else."

The winning car in each race is taken back to the R&D Center. A random car also is taken. That was Martin at Dover.

When the process was completed, NASCAR inspectors felt it was time to have a talk with Hendrick officials.

Knaus and Alan Gustafson, Martin's crew chief, were summoned to the R&D Center, as were some of the Hendrick engineers.

"They said their measurements aren't that close," Darby said. "So we took the time to walk through the entire car and go over every number we take.

If they pushed every rule to the limit, that is why they're running good. There's nothing wrong with that. I wish that was us. That's ingenuity. I think that's every team's job.

--Brian Vickers

"I think their engineers learned a little bit about why there was a discrepancy. I feel good about going through that exercise with them. I think it was very productive. But the fact that we stayed Wednesday and did that, it doesn't take long for the rumor mill to get started."

Neither car was confiscated, but those cars aren't being used this weekend. Knaus said they plan to use the Dover car at Charlotte later this month. Martin is using the car he drove to victory at Chicagoland in July.

Johnson sloughs off all the talk. Last week, some drivers complained that he had an advantage because the 48 did a tire test at Dover.

Johnson said he hoped his Chase rivals were scared. Now he hopes they worry about the inspection situation.

"Sure, let people focus on a non-issue," Johnson said Friday. "It gives everyone something to write about and swirls in the other [teams'] heads."

And for all you conspiracy theorists, there's no Hendrick favoritism going on. NASCAR officials do this all the time to warn teams about the dangers of coming too close to limits.

Darby used an example of a car going on the scale at the limit of 3,450 pounds.

"We point that out," Darby said. "We say, 'Look, what are you doing? You're taking a chance our scales will be exactly the same every time.'"

But this is the mighty team of Hendrick Motorsports and former violator Knaus, so other teams are bound to question it.

Brian Vickers isn't one of them. Vickers is a former Hendrick driver who gave the Red Bull Toyota team its first Chase competitor this year.

"Obviously, the 48 team has crossed that line in the past," Vickers said. "Chad has more fines than anyone in NASCAR history, so that's where the rumors will come from. I'm not insinuating they did last weekend.

"If they pushed every rule to the limit, that is why they're running good. There's nothing wrong with that. I wish that was us. That's ingenuity. I think that's every team's job."

Clearly, the 48 and the 5 are doing that job to perfection. NASCAR's point is this: There's a fine line between perfection and perdition.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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