Crew chief Chad Knaus expressed regret for tainting his friend and driver's Daytona 500 victory tour, but was otherwise unrepentant about the allegations of cheating that led NASCAR to suspend and fine him on Tuesday.
Knaus was fined $25,000 and will be suspended until March 22, which would allow him to return for the fifth race of the season at Bristol, Tenn. He has been placed on probation through Dec. 31 after violating the nebulous "actions detrimental to stock car racing" and more concrete "unapproved template modification" sections of the NASCAR rulebook.
Jimmie Johnson's car was found to have an illegal modification to the lower right area of its rear window, designed to take air off the spoiler and make the car faster, after a post-qualifying inspection on Feb. 12. Johnson qualified the No. 48 Chevrolet fifth but was sent to the back of his 150-mile qualifying race on Thursday as a penalty.
With Knaus ejected from the grounds for the rest of the week, Johnson raced his way to a ninth starting position in the Daytona 500 and won Nextel Cup's marquee event on Sunday.
Hendrick Motorsports generalmanager Marshall Carlson said the team would not appeal. Knaus won an appeal of a two-race suspension last year from the National Stock Car Racing Commission.
Knaus said he was "shocked" when Johnson's car failed inspection but would not elaborate on what had been done to it. Nextel Cup series director John Darby said the mechanism designed to push out the window constituted an obvious attempt to circumvent rules. Knaus said how the car came to fail inspection was "irrelevant" and added "I think if we ran 25th every week, we wouldn't be getting this attention."
But his team is one of NASCAR's most prominent and successful and the Daytona situation was the latest in a string of incidents that has agitated his peers. After finishing third in the Daytona 500, driver Ryan Newman called Johnson's last three wins into question. Johnson's car failed a roof height inspection after winning at Las Vegas last year and won at Dover last fall with shocks that were later made illegal when NASCAR rewrote its rules.
With team owners like Robert Yates and Chip Ganassi suggesting cheaters should be banned, Knaus will have to be more conservative in the future, he said.
"I love what I do for a living. I love this sport," Knaus said. "This sport has taken me from a small town in Rockford, Ill., to living out close to the lake in Mooresville, N.C. and I want to be in this sport for a long time. I'm going to be here a long time and if I've got that little bit of a label, I need to change that so that I am here and am successful for many years to come."
Knaus will miss Sunday's race at Fontana, Calif., the March 12 race at Las Vegas and the March 19 event at Atlanta.
Knaus insisted that Johnson had no knowledge of what was done to his car before qualifying. Johnson, a two-time series runnerup, continued to support his crew chief but also suggested the team may need to be a less-frequent visitor to the gray areas of the rulebook.
"We just need to walk on the right side of the line from here on out," he said.
Johnson lashed out again at Newman on a talk show tour in New York after saying on Sunday that Newman needs a crew chief that works as hard as Knaus. He called into question Newman's resume, in specific 2003, when Newman's eight wins doubled any other driver.
"It's well known that he got spectacular fuel mileage and there was something funny going along with that on his side with his equipment," Johnson said. "I'm not one to judge people when they have infractions in our sport because all the crew chiefs walk that line. They're trying to find an advantage. That's what they're paid to do."
OTHER PUNISHMENT: NASCAR fined Hall of Fame Racing crew chief Philippe Lopez $25,000 and docked driver Terry Labonte 25 points for an unapproved carburetor found on the No. 96 Chevrolet during qualifying. The team also lost 25 owner points.
- The Associated Press contributed to this report.