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Hendrick's case shows power of man hearing NASCAR's appeals

CONCORD, N.C. -- John Middlebrook's importance in NASCAR is growing.

In some ways, he has more power than some of NASCAR's top officials. And he's using it.

Middlebrook, a former General Motors executive, is the National Stock Car Racing Chief Appellate Officer. It's a long title for someone who is the final voice for those fighting NASCAR penalties.

Since taking the position -- which pays $1 a year -- in 2010, he's heard four appeals. He's reduced penalties in every case.

No action was bigger than Tuesday when Middlebrook gutted NASCAR's penalties to Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus and their Hendrick Motorsports team for infractions discovered last month at Daytona.

That six-race suspension for Knaus and car chief Ron Malec? Rescinded.

That 25-point penalty to Johnson? Rescinded

That 25-point penalty in the owner standings? Rescinded

Middlebrook did allow the $100,000 fine to Knaus to stand and that Knaus and Malec remain on probation until May 9.

Admittedly, it was a curious decision on Middlebrook's part to leave the fine after disallowing the suspensions and point penalty.

"I would have liked to have had the fine gone, too, because there's no reason for any kind of penalty,'' car owner Rick Hendrick said Tuesday afternoon after Middlebrook's decision.

Middlebrook didn't explain his actions publicly. He did not talk to the media and the statement issued was of the Joe Friday version -- just the facts.

Former driver Kyle Petty, now an analyst for Speed Channel, called Middlebrook's actions "a voice of reason in a sea of insanity.''

"But this was not what I expected," he said. "I said from the beginning that the punishment didn't fit the crime, and the points penalty was way over the top in my opinion.

"This was a very fair ruling. I'm happy that the team did a good job presenting their evidence and that John did a good job of interpreting the evidence and ruling the way I would have.''

Hendrick noted the 20-plus photographs, pages of information and even three affidavits, including one from a NASCAR official. The detail was reminiscent to the courtroom scene Arlo Guthrie described in his song Alice's Restaurant.' You know the part about the "27 8x10 color glossy pictures with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one.''

Afterward, A NASCAR spokesperson talked about how this showed how well NASCAR's appeal process works even as series officials likely were muttering about the decision.

Middlebrook has shown a willingness to curtail some of NASCAR's penalties recently. Consider:

? In 2010, he upheld NASCAR's 150-point penalty to Clint Bowyer after his winning car failed post-race inspection at New Hampshire but reduced crew chief Shane Wilson's fine $50,000 to $100,000 and reduced the six-race suspension for Wilson and car chief Chad Haney to four races.

? In 2010, Middlebrook reduced car owner Johnny Davis' fine from $5,000 to $2,500 for an altercation with another competitor.

? Two months ago, he ended the indefinite suspension for Peyton Sellers, who was involved in an altercation with a NASCAR official at a short track event.

Such action led some to believe that maybe Knaus' suspension would be reduced a couple of races and that would be it. There didn't seem to be any hope of getting the 25 points back for Johnson except for those at Hendrick Motorsports.

It was just a week ago that a three-member appeals panel unanimously upheld NASCAR's penalties to Johnson, Knaus and the team.

"I was shocked,'' Hendrick said of the appeals panel's decision. "I'm ... not surprised but glad [after the penalties were overturned]. It just felt like, to me, it was the only way it could go.''

One question is if this decision will alter NASCAR's inspection process. It was during the first inspection at Daytona that series officials noticed an issue with the C-posts of Johnson's car and forced the team replace them.

Hendrick contended that NASCAR never checked the car with the templates before finding issue with it. He also said that the car had not been altered and since it was last approved in January.

NASCAR spokesperson Kerry Tharp said series officials remain confident in their inspection process.

"I don't think we made any mistakes,'' he said. "I think our inspection process speaks for itself. It's worked very, very well in the garage area for many, many years. I think it's going to work well for many years to come.''

That doesn't mean others won't fight their penalties. With Middlebrook, they might have somebody willing to listen to their cause.

He listened to Hendrick and now Johnson, without getting on the track, moved from 17th to 11th in the driver standings.

"I'm glad this is over,'' Johnson wrote on Twitter, "now it's on to [California].''

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