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Johnson's crew chief surprised by suspension

By John Marshall

Associated Press

Published: Friday, March 2 2012 1:45 p.m. MST

AVONDALE, Ariz. — Jimmie Johnson's car failed inspection before the Daytona 500 and he didn't last long in the race, collected in a wreck on the second lap.

His crew chief was suspended six races and fined $100,000, and his car chief will have to watch for six races, too. Johnson also was docked 25 points and heads into this weekend's race at Phoenix International Raceway last in the Sprint Cup standings.

He's hoping to have a good race just so he can get out of the red in points. Coming off his worst year in NASCAR, this isn't how the five-time champion wanted to get his season started.

"It's certainly not a position we want to be in," Johnson said Friday. "But there's a lot of racing between now and September."

Johnson wasn't much of a factor last season in his bid to win six straight Sprint Cup championships. He made the Chase after winning just one race and finished sixth in the final standings, 99 points behind champion Tony Stewart.

Johnson vowed to turn it around in 2012, but it didn't get off to a very good start.

First, his car failed inspection the opening day of Speedweeks on Feb. 17 after NASCAR ruled the No. 48 Chevrolet had illegally modified sheet metal between the roof and the side windows, an area known as the C-posts.

Johnson qualified eighth for the Daytona 500. But after nearly two days of rain delays, he was knocked out of the race on the second lap when Elliott Sadler nudged him from behind and triggered a multi-car wreck.

Johnson didn't return to the track — missing the jet blower fire and the laundry detergent cleanup — and finished 42nd, earning just two points in Monday night's season-opening race.

Two days later, NASCAR announced its steep penalties for Johnson's team.

Crew chief Chad Knaus was fined $100,000 and suspended six races, and car chief Ron Malec was told he'd have to sit out six races. Hendricks Motorsports appealed, so both chiefs will be allowed to attend races during the process.

Johnson also was penalized, dropping him to minus 23 points, 70 behind Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth in the season standings.

"It's going to make things exciting and that's something we like to do with the 48 team," Knaus said. "It seems somehow or another we seem to get through adversity pretty well. So, I'm not saying we like a challenge like this but I'm pretty sure we'll rise to the occasion."

The wreck at Daytona was hard to take, but unavoidable, one of those tough-luck breaks that come with racing.

The failed inspection and subsequent suspension caught the team off-guard.

Knaus said the car had passed inspection on "multiple occasions" with the same configuration and that they didn't anticipate any problems heading into Speedweeks. He also said the failed inspection was based on an eyeball test, not anything technical.

"It was all visual," he said. "The templates never were actually put on the car. We never got the opportunity to present it on the templates. That definitely will come up during the appeal and we'll talk about it. NASCAR has a good set of standards that are black and white and others that are not."

Knaus has been in this position before.

He's been suspended four previous times, the first coming in 2001 while serving as crew chief for Stacy Compton, who NASCAR said had an unapproved shoulder harness in his car. Knaus teamed with Johnson at Hendrick Motorsports at the end of that season, the start of a run that includes 54 victories and five titles.

Knaus also was suspended when Johnson won the 2006 Daytona 500 with Darian Grubb filling in and sat out six weeks in 2007 when NASCAR said he had flared out the front bumpers of Johnson's car at Sonoma. Knaus also had a two-race ban in 2005 overturned on appeal.

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