Jimmie Johnson heads to Las Vegas sitting 37th in the Sprint Cup points, but his situation is far from desperate. He has two ways to make the Chase and 24 races still ahead of him. For a driver and team of Johnson's talent, the Chase is within reach.
NASCAR's 25-point penalty for an illegal alteration found on the No. 48 Chevrolet in pre-race inspection for the Daytona 500 was a blow. Even worse was finishing 42nd at Daytona, worth just two points, which sent Johnson to Phoenix with minus 23 points. Johnson got in the black with a strong fourth-place there and currently has 18 points.
Johnson is 25 points out of 20th place, the cutoff for making the Chase as a wild card, and 45 out of 10th, the last guaranteed spot for the 10-race playoff. Johnson can overcome those deficits by running like he has always run in 10 full Cup seasons. There is every reason to believe that Johnson, aligned with the same crew chief in Chad Knaus and the same team in Hendrick Motorsports, will perform at the level that has made him a five-time Sprint Cup champion who has never finished lower than sixth in the points. Johnson has 149 top-five and 225 top-10 finishes in 365 starts.
Fourth at Phoenix was a disappointment for Johnson for this reason: a win would have gone a long way in helping to secure the wild-card spot. He dominated an early segment of the race, leading 55 laps, but fell to the back when there was trouble attaching a wheel. Still, Johnson had enough speed in the car to rally to fourth.
"We'll take it," Johnson said. "I'm not really satisfied. I really felt like we had a car to win the race with. I passed a lot of race cars on a track that's tough to pass and still got back to fourth."
Johnson's objective is the same as it is early in every season, to win races. He'll try to do it with speed rather than gambling on tires or fuel. Speed will guarantee those top-five and top-10 finishes needed to get to the top-10 in the points.
"It [fourth] was exactly what we needed," Johnson said. "We just need to keep doing that week after week. We want to go to the racetrack and perform as well as we can each and every week and win races. That is our agenda."
The No. 48 team will undoubtedly watch where it sits in the points as the season progress and adjust strategies accordingly. If the top 10 in points doesn't seem attainable with five races to go in the regular season, it will have to focus on the two wild cards. That could mean taking more risk to win races.
"The worst-case scenario would be fighting for a wild card spot and [it] boils down to winning races," Johnson said.
Hendrick has appealed the penalties, which include a six-race suspension for Knaus and car chief Ron Malec. A NASCAR spokesman said this week the appeal hasn't been scheduled, but it's expected to be heard next week when the teams and NASCAR officials return from the two-week Western swing.
"Mr. [Rick] Hendrick [team owner] has taken a special interest in this [appeal], obviously," Knaus said. "He'll be pretty heavily ingrained in it. We are very fortunate to go through the appeal process. We have seen some things changed, reversed, minimized and some maximized at different times. Hopefully, we will get it going in our favor.
"It [the inspection] was all visual. The templates were never actually put on the car. We never even got the opportunity to actually present that [car] under templates. It is unfortunate. There is a lot of subjectiveness to it and that is why we are going through the appeal."
Knaus said the altered part was used in all four restrictor-plate events in 2011.
"It [the car] has been inspected a lot," he said.
NASCAR took the body part, known as a C-post, back to its research and development center in Concord, N.C. The penalties were announced 11 days later. It's a time frame that wouldn't appear to favor an overturned ruling. NASCAR must have evaluated the C-post before issuing the penalties.
Johnson has won races without Knaus on top of the pit box before. He won the Daytona 500 and one other race with Darian Grubb, then the No. 48's engineer, during a six-race suspension for Knaus in 2006. Grubb was crew chief for Tony Stewart's Cup championship last year and for Denny Hamlin's victory at Phoenix on Sunday.
Even now, Hendrick has the deepest organization in Cup. Two possibilities to replace Knaus are Greg Ives, the current engineer on the No. 48, and Lance McGrew, who spent last year as Mark Martin's crew chief and was with Dale Earnhardt Jr. before that. McGrew works for Hendrick's research and development department.
Johnson is ready to take on the challenge if the appeal is denied and he loses Knaus and Malec for six races.
"Whatever happens post-appeal, I have a lot of confidence in Hendrick Motorsports and the depth we have in our organization," Johnson said. "We will respond to whatever we need to then."
Johnson missing the Chase for the first time? Don't bet on it. He'll be there.