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Johnson seems to be returning to form, but penalty decision looms

To a champion, second place is meaningless. To Jimmie Johnson, it proved meaningful Sunday.

For a team that faded late last season and didn't showcase the speed others did, Johnson's performance -- in his backup car, no less -- at Las Vegas Motor Speedway is a sign that this team could be regaining its strength.

Yet this happens as the team faces a key date Tuesday, when Hendrick Motorsports appeals the team's Daytona penalty to the National Stock Car Racing Appeals Panel.

NASCAR suspended crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec six Sprint Cup races each, fined Knaus $100,000 and docked Johnson 25 points after ruling that Johnson's team made unapproved modifications to the car's C-posts. The infraction was found on the first day of inspection at Dayton last month. Knaus and Malec have been able to work at the track while awaiting the appeal.

With the point penalty, Johnson is 23rd in the standings after Sunday's race. It's not an insurmountable climb. Five drivers in the last four years were 23rd or worse in the points after Las Vegas and made the Chase.

If Johnson gets those 25 points back, he would be 13th.

While the points are important, the key will be if the team can convince the three-member appeal panel to reduce Kanus' suspension.

In 2005, the panel eliminated a two-race suspension NASCAR gave Knaus when Johnson's car failed inspection after winning at Las Vegas. So, such a move is possible. Of course, the panel can keep the penalties as they are or increase them.

If Hendrick Motorsports is not satisfied with the panel's decision this week, the team can appeal to John Middlebrook, the National Stock Car Racing Chief Appellate Officer. His decision is final. He also has altered penalties in the past.

In 2010, car owner Richard Childress appealed NASCAR's penalty to Clint Bowyer's team. NASCAR ruled that Bowyer's car failed inspection after winning the New Hampshire fall race. The panel upheld NASCAR's penalties. Childress appealed the decision to Middlebrook, who kept most of the penalties intact but reduced crew chief Shane Wilson's suspension from six weeks to four weeks.

Middlebrook likely wouldn't hear any appeal until next week at the earliest, meaning Knaus could be with the team this weekend at Bristol even if the appeal is denied.

The key is if Knaus has to serve a suspension, what races will he miss. Both Martinsville and Richmond could present challenges for Johnson's team if Knaus is serving a suspension then.

While Hendrick Motorsports has former crew chiefs available, if it decides not to promote someone from within Johnson's team, a new crew chief might have little time to adjust before the short-track races.

With how strong Johnson is at Martinsville -- 11 top-fives in the last 13 races there, including five wins -- the question becomes how a different crew chief could impact Johnson's chances of winning. With wins a key factor in securing a Chase wild-card berth, any early victories would give Johnson's team a cushion after it left Daytona with -23 points.

It would be on race day that Knaus' absence would be felt the most. Even with him not at the track, he'll still play a key role. With the additional information electronic fuel injection provides teams, he'll have access to that and can help the team with setting up the car even if he's not allowed in the garage area. Plus, Knaus can be in contact with Johnson and the team throughout the weekend, so even if he's not next to the car, he'll know all that is happening.

That won't be reassuring to other teams with the way the team has performed the past two weeks. Johnson finished fourth at Phoenix before his second-place run Sunday, showing signs that he's stronger than he was late last season.

After he won at Kansas in October, Johnson finished no better than 14th in five of the last six races. Johnson also led only 66 laps out of 1,935 run in the final six races. While Johnson ranked second in the series in laps led last season with 1,115, it was the fewest laps he'd led in a season since 2006.

His dominance at a few tracks masked the fact that he did not lead a lap in 13 races and led only one lap in seven others. Thus, he led less than two laps in more than half of the races last year. He's started better this year. He led 55 laps at Phoenix last week and 35 laps at Las Vegas, the most he's led there in the last three years.

"We've worked so hard over the offseason to put speed in our cars, make them comfortable and consistent so I can get in there and not be on edge while driving it," Johnson said at Las Vegas.

"We've achieved that goal. We did some early testing in Nashville and Disneyworld. We saw that we had a better product. That's had me very excited."

Johnson stated how he used the offseason to re-evaluate where he was and what more he could do with the team. Johnson admitted it was hard making changes in previous years when he was winning championships. Thus, it was easier to do so this year since Stewart won the title. Among the changes, Johnson decided not to race in the Rolex 24 in Daytona this year, so he could have more time to relax and enter the Cup season "refreshed and excited."

More work remains, though.

Stewart clearly was better on restarts Sunday, giving him the cushion to keep Johnson, one of the sport's best drivers in the final laps, from taking the victory away. Afterward, Johnson said he wanted to consult the data now available to teams with electronic fuel injection to see if it revealed how Stewart pulled ahead so easily.

Stewart jokingly said he wouldn't share the information, but admitted he knew Johnson would get to see it since Stewart's engines come from Hendrick Motorsports. Stewart didn't have an issue with that.

"I can promise you, our teammates with Hendrick will know what's going on," Stewart said. "If the roles were reversed, they would make sure we had that information. We will make sure they have that information."

The key question for Johnson's team this week isn't what Stewart did to pull away -- they can figure that out -- but what the appeals panel will decide.

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