the continuing saga of the Maltese Lug Nut
For most of the drivers, crews and officials on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit, the upcoming race at Michigan International Speedway was just another stop on the schedule. For NASCAR Chief Inspector Mike Helton, Michigan was the source of his sleepless nights. It was during the August 2008 Cup race at the track that the priceless Maltese Lug Nut had been stolen from the garage area of Roush Fenway Racing. The theft of the Lug Nut sent shockwaves through the NASCAR community, and Helton was no closer to solving the crime now than he had been in August.
He was convinced that the notorious lug nut bandit, Kristen Valus (aka Millie Leit) was behind the theft, but as of yet, he had no solid proof
Helton had mercilessly grilled Kristen for hours in the NASCAR hauler, but his interrogation skills were no match for her years of psychological study.
When the Lug disappeared, it had been in the possession of Jack Roush.
At the time, Roush was absolutely convinced that the evil Toyota Empire had masterminded the theft since their “wonder boy,” Kyle Busch was winning everything in sight. Roush was less sure of that conviction as the 2008 season came to its close. Busch’s dream season turned into a nightmare.
Then, in late January, a mysterious package arrived at the door of Roush-Fenway Racing. Inside the package was a lug nut. It certainly looked like the Maltese Lug Nut, and when Roush driver Matt Kenseth won the first two races of the season- including the prestigious Daytona 500- Roush became convinced that his purloined property had been returned.
Unfortunately, those were the last two races won by a Roush driver. In subsequent races, the Roush teams failed to find Victory Lane, and after another disastrous race at Talladega, Roush discovered that the lug left at the door was a forgery. The real Maltese Lug Nut was still out there somewhere, and Roush wanted it back.
Roush turned the fake lug over to Chief Inspector Helton, who examined it closely. There were only a handful of people in the NASCAR garages who could have created such a masterful deception. Chad Knaus, crew chief of the #48, topped the list.
Knaus’s attention to detail was legendary in the NASCAR garages, and if he wasn’t responsible for the fake lug nut, more than likely he knew who was. Helton summoned Knaus to the big yellow hauler.
“Afternoon, Chad.” Helton said as Knaus took a seat. Helton placed the fake lug on the table directly in front of the crew chief. “Tell me what you know about this.”
“It’s a lug nut.” Knaus said. “It holds the tire on the car.”
“Very funny,” Helton said sarcastically. “Look, I can make sure you don’t get that fourth straight championship if you don’t cooperate. Now tell me what you know about the Maltese Lug Nut.” The crew chief remained calm and collected, completely unaffected by Helton’s threat.
"Ask Ray. Last time I saw it, it was on the T-Rex.” Knaus replied.
“Don’t get smart with me, Chad. Everyone knows that you took the Lug Nut with you when you left Hendrick for DEI. How else could Mikey Waltrip win a race unless he had the Lug Nut on his car?”
“Where’s your proof?” Helton didn’t have an answer, and Chad knew it. “Now, is that all you wanted? I’ve got a car to get ready to race.” Knaus got up from the table and left the hauler.
Helton knew that he had his work cut out for him. He went to the top of the garages and looked out over the parked haulers.
Gordon’s problems, however, were physical, not mechanical. The Lug Nut would cure an ill handling race car; it wouldn’t cure a back ailment.
Kurt Busch and the #2 team- Busch was another driver whose 2009 season to date was a significant improvement over 2008.
More importantly for Helton’s investigation, Kristen Valus was a frequent race guest of Busch and the Brew Crew. Busch, however, held steadfast in his belief that Kristen’s presence at the track and the disappearance of the Lug Nut were mere coincidence.
That left Tony Stewart. When Stewart announced in 2008 that he was leaving Joe Gibbs Racing to form his own Cup team, everyone agreed that he would face an uphill climb in his first season at best; at worst, that climb would be up Mt. Everest. Stewart, however, was proving the experts wrong at every turn.
At the season opening race in Daytona, Stewart had come out of the gate strong. In the first fourteen races of 2009, Stewart finished out of the top 15 four times. Only two of those finishes had been outside the top 20. In what seemed like record time to some, Stewart had amassed a string of top 5’s and top 10’s that had put him atop the points standings and had propelled him to victory in the All-Star Race and at Pocono.
Even more astounding was the fact that Stewart’s success thus far had come without the fiery driver losing his temper. Starting a Sprint Cup team was stressful under normal conditions; starting one during an economic downturn, well, there were those who would say it was downright foolish. Nevertheless, Stewart was making it look like child’s play. Clearly, Helton had some snooping to do around the #14 hauler.
Helton knew that he would have to be extraordinarily cautious with his investigations. Some of NASCAR’s recent rulings had drivers and crews alike on pins and needles; An increased presence in the garage area by a high ranking NASCAR official would have a negative impact on information gathering.
Helton casually strolled through the garage area looking for clues and listening to the garage gossip. His first stop was the hauler of Ryan Newman.
Newman was Stewart’s teammate, but he had previously worked at Penske Racing with Kurt Busch. Newman was also the one who had given Helton the heads up about Kristen during his initial investigation of the theft. Hopefully, Newman would be able to provide more information about Kristen’s activities at the track. The two men talked for a few minutes before Helton turned the subject to Kristen and the Lug Nut.
“So what can you tell me about Kristen Valus?” Helton asked.
“Not much more than I told you last year.” Newman responded. “I didn’t have that much interaction with her.”
“Did you ever see her away from the #2 crew?”
“I saw her at some press conferences,” Newman began, “but I never noticed anything out of the ordinary.” Helton thanked the driver and continued making his way to the #14’s garage area. The #14 crew was hard at work preparing the Office Depot Chevrolet for Sunday’s race. It took only a few minutes of conversation to discover that if indeed Stewart possessed the Lug Nut, the crew was oblivious to the fact. Helton would have to question Stewart directly. As luck would have it, Stewart came walking out of his hauler as Helton was finishing his conversations with the crew.
“Tony, can I have a minute?” Helton called to the owner/driver. Stewart walked over to Helton, who took a piece of paper from his pocket. “What can you tell me about this person?” Helton asked as he showed the paper to Stewart. It was a photo of Kristen.
“I’ve seen her around the track. She’s been at some of my press conferences, and she’s asked me for an autograph on more than one occasion.” Tony answered. There was a slight tone of irritation in his voice. Helton wasn’t sure if that irritation was meant for him or Kristen. Helton pressed on with his interrogation.
“What do you know about the Maltese Lug Nut?” Helton asked point blankly.
“What, you think she gave it to me?” Stewart asked incredulously. “Dude, she doesn’t even like me. Why would she give me the Lug Nut?”
“There are some who think that your success so far can’t be completely attributed to having the right people in the right places.”
“Like I said,” Stewart responded tersely, “the girl doesn’t even like me. Go read the FOXSports blogs if you don’t believe me.” With that, Stewart walked back into his hauler.
Helton returned to his office, concerned that he’d never find the missing Lug Nut. He sat down at his desk and reached to turn on his computer; however, something on his desk caught his attention. It was a folded piece of paper. Helton picked up the note and examined it. He didn’t recognize the handwriting, but he was absolutely certain that whoever had written the note was a woman. It still carried traces of the unmistakable scent of Chanel No. 5 He unfolded the paper and read: