No rules were broken. No penalties handed out.
That’s what happened when Jimmie Johnson didn’t attempt a qualifying lap last Friday at Auto Club Speedway for the Auto Club 400 two days later.
Johnson wrecked his car in the first Cup practice earlier Friday while making a mock qualifying run. Crew chief Chad Knaus brought the backup No. 48 out of the team’s trailer, choosing to forego Friday qualifying to work out the kinks for Saturday’s two final NASCAR Cup practices.
“I just felt it was wiser to get the car prepared correctly rather than qualify poorly,” Knaus said Friday. “I wasn’t comfortable putting Jimmie in a position where he would have to hustle a car that hasn’t turned a lap in yet.”
It’s worth noting that because it was a West Coast race, if Johnson had wrecked another car, he likely would have been forced to use a teammate’s backup car (for some East Coast races, Hendrick likely would have shipped another No. 48 from its shop).
By electing to bypass qualifying, Johnson started 37th in the 39-car field Sunday and finished 21st.
On Wednesday’s NASCAR America, NASCAR On NBC analyst and former driver Jeff Burton disagreed with Knaus’ call and said that, in effect, Johnson fans were shortchanged.
“First and foremost, Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus did nothing wrong,” Burton said. “They didn’t break any rules. They followed all the rules. NASCAR considered that they were attempting to qualify because they tried to practice, (and) they wrecked their car. No rules were broken.
“I just think in the greater interest of the sport, if I’m a race fan, particularly a Jimmie Johnson fan, and I turn the TV on, I want my guy out there trying to qualify.
“I think in the better good of the sport, it’s best that people deliver, put their car on the grid and put their driver out to qualify. I understand what Chad Knaus is saying. We’ve seen it a lot of times where a backup car comes out, and they go win the race.
“The backup cars today are different than they were 30 years ago. These backup cars today are put in that trailer that can go win the race.
“I just think that for the well-being of the sport, the fans deserve to see their guy that they tuned in on TV, at person at the track or turn the radio on, to listen to their guy, watch their guy go qualify the best he can. The fans were cheated, in my opinion, in not having that car on the racetrack.”
Two other analysts chimed in on Burton’s contention.
Said NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett: “If the drivers, the teams, the crew chiefs knew that if they did not make a qualifying attempt, did not get out and make a lap, that they were sitting on pit road when the green flag fell, then I think that would make things a lot different in that inspection process and in the process of the thinking the way Chad and Jimmie went about it.”
Added former driver Greg Biffle, “Listen, they already crashed making a qualifying run (in practice). So, Chad has his last car in the trailer, and to put it together and put Jimmie on the racetrack with no laps and take a chance at having something go wrong with that car. These cars are real good now, that probably wouldn’t happen.”
Said Jarrett: “The chance is always there, so that makes it difficult.”
Burton reiterated that Johnson and Knaus did nothing wrong but added a caveat:
“I just think in the big picture and best interest of the sport, it’s something that has to be looked at,” he said. “As we’ve all seen, when one person does something, it tends to start a trend – and this is not a trend we want to see continue on into the future.
“I agree with D.J., making some rules. Because if you penalize teams and drivers for not getting through inspection in time and those kinds of things in a greater way, all of a sudden teams and drivers get through inspection on time to present their cars to qualify.”