News & Media

Johnson still optimistic about penalty appeal

March 17, 2012, Joe Menzer,

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Despite unanimous ruling Tuesday, five-time champ believes team will triumph

While it appears most everyone else in NASCAR seems to think the chances of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team having its recent penalties reduced or dismissed are all but over, Jimmie Johnson apparently did not receive that memo.

Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet, said Friday that he's still "optimistic" the penalties assessed for alleged illegal modifications to his race car prior to Speedweeks in Daytona will be reduced or possibly even overturned altogether. After having an initial appeal denied by a three-member NASCAR appeals board last Tuesday, the team has one final opportunity to have its case heard this Tuesday when it will be presented before NASCAR chief appellate officer John Middlebrook.

Ruling not appealing

An appeals board ruled in favor of the penalties levied against the No. 48 team, leaving owner Rick Hendrick with one more option.

"We clearly feel that we have a point to make, and that's why we continue to go through the process and appeal this thing," Johnson said. "We certainly will with this next and final step."

Johnson has some reason to be optimistic. Middlebrook, a former General Motors executive, has reduced suspensions in all three appeals he's heard since being appointed to his current position in 2010. In only one of those cases did the penalties being appealed involve points as well as suspensions, however, and in that case Middlebrook did not reduce the points penalty.

The penalties were assessed by NASCAR for alleged illegal modifications to the C-posts on the No. 48 car, which could provide a race car with an aerodynamic advantage. Crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec each were issued six-week suspensions, and Knaus also was fined $100,000. In addition, Johnson was docked 25 driver points and the team also was docked 25 owner points.

Meanwhile, until the final appeal is heard, Knaus and Malec were at Bristol on Friday to help prepare Johnson's car for Sunday's Food City 500.

And while Johnson insisted he is optimistic about not losing two key members of his team for six weeks beginning with the March 25 race at Auto Club Speedway, he admitted he's thinking he needs to put the No. 48 car in Victory Lane -- and soon. The five-time Sprint Cup champions enters Sunday's race 23rd in the point standings, 64 behind leader Greg Biffle, and certainly would benefit greatly from restoration of some or all of the 25 points he lost via the penalty.

He also would benefit greatly from adding a victory to the back-to-back strong finishes he posted at Phoenix and Las Vegas after a second-lap wreck took him out in the Daytona 500.

"We've really tried to rule out that mindset, or that reality of what could be there if Chad has to sit out," said Johnson, who finished fourth at Phoenix and second last Sunday at Las Vegas. "And I've looked at it more like that 42nd at Daytona is not the way you want to start out. So either way, it's really sort of the same. We're either down a ton of points or at least some points, depending on what happens when the final appeal takes place.

"So race wins are at a premium and at the top of my mind right now. I think all drivers look at the Chase and say, 'If I could win two or three races right now, that's either enough points or will be enough as a wild card to carry you in.' So right now we're just focused on getting as many race wins and as many points as we possibly can."

Johnson insisted he has been so confident in winning the appeal that no definitive backup plan is in place for the potential dual losses of Knaus and Malec. Multiple sources have indicated, however, that Knaus likely will be replaced as crew chief during any suspension by Larry Carter -- the former general manager at Rusty Wallace Inc. who joined Hendrick Motorsports last January.

"To be honest with you, we haven't worked on the backup plan," Johnson said. "We put a lot of faith in what took place last Tuesday, and we thought everything would be overturned. We were shocked by the penalties to start with.

"In case things don't change, we're not overly concerned because of the depth we have in the organization. But at the same time, we understand the importance of chemistry in this sport -- and Chad and I have great chemistry. Ron Malec, for that matter, and the way he runs the team is part of it all as well."

"The way things are now, if they stand, it will be a huge blow to the team."


Teammate Jeff Gordon noted that when Knaus served a previous suspension at the beginning of the 2006 season, Johnson won the Daytona 500 with Darian Grubb subbing for Knaus atop the No. 48 pit box.

"For me it would be a disruption," said Gordon, driver of the No. 24 Chevy for Hendrick. "For Jimmie Johnson, it doesn't seem to be. I think the sign of a good crew chief is that when they step away -- say whatever takes them away for a test or a race weekend or several race weekends -- I think a testament of a great leader is someone who can step away and someone either underneath them or people he puts in place can still follow through and execute as if they didn't skip a beat.

"I think everybody knows that Chad is one of the best crew chiefs out there, if not the best, and he's valuable. But you've got to give Jimmie and the team and everything Chad has orchestrated and put together a lot more credit. And I think if [the final appeal being denied] were to be the case, I think they'll show just like they have in previous years that they're still going to be a team to battle for the win whether Chad's here or not. Because basically, his influence is always going to be here."

Perhaps, but Johnson did acknowledge that losing Knaus and Malec for six weeks would equate to a twist of the knife in a gaping wound already created by the 25-point penalty.

"The way things are now, if they stand, it will be a huge blow to the team," Johnson said. "I feel like we can work through it and still have a chance to win races, but it will be very, very difficult. And then you look at the points that are lost, 25 points is a big number. That puts the premium back on winning -- but then having your crew chief and your car chief [suspended] would make winning that much more difficult.

"So it's a double-edged sword. It's not an easy deal to go through and that's why we're fighting it. That's why we're going through with the final appeal. ... I'm definitely disappointed about what happened last Tuesday. I hope that this next appeal will be heard and will have a different outcome. But there's no telling how it will all shake out."