Five-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus are back in the spotlight at one of racing's biggest stages -- and not for the right reason.
NASCAR confiscated part of their Daytona 500 car Friday because of illegal modifications, a rocky start to Speedweeks for a team trying to bounce back from its worst season.
Sprint Cup Series officials determined the No. 48 Chevrolet had illegally modified C-posts, an area of sheet metal between the roof and the side windows. It could lead to penalties for Knaus and the team.
Officials cut off the C-posts and planned to ship them to NASCAR's research and development center in Concord, N.C., for further testing. In the meantime, the parts in question were put on display for other teams to examine, a routine procedure for the sanctioning body.
NASCAR allowed the Hendrick Motorsports team to fix that area of the car before practice begins for the Feb. 26 Daytona 500. Qualifying is scheduled for Sunday.
"Well, it's a hell of a way to start the 2012 season," said Ken Howes, vice president of competition at Hendrick Motorsports. "But the car obviously failed inspection and NASCAR has directed us how they want it fixed and we're busy doing that. We're waiting on some parts to arrive and we'll put it back together and run it through inspection again."
The No. 48 team could be fined, docked points or both following the series' premier event.
"There's always a potential, but we'll just wait until after Speedweeks is over with," said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition.
Knaus has been caught cheating before.
Most notably, he was ejected before the 2006 Daytona 500 after NASCAR found illegal modifications following a qualifying session. Last season, Knaus was caught on camera telling Johnson that if he won at Talladega he needed to "crack the back of the car," apparently to build an explanation in case the car did not pass post-race inspection. Nothing came of that situation.
Knaus has been fined and penalized several other times, too.
This situation doesn't appear to be as serious as it was in 2006.
"Ejection? No, no, we're good," Pemberton said. "That was a little bit different because that was a post-event we'd already been in. That wasn't a pre-race inspection or pre-qualifying inspection."
Knaus skipped a three-day testing session at Daytona last month. He was on a Hendrick Motorsports-approved vacation to South Africa that most who know the tightly wound crew chief believe will help him over the course of NASCAR's grueling 11-month schedule.
Johnson guessed it had been almost a decade since Knaus took his last real vacation. His commitment paid off with 55 victories since 2002 and a NASCAR-record five consecutive championships. His run with Johnson was snapped last season by Tony Stewart, and Johnson finished a career-low sixth in the final Sprint Cup standings.
It's unclear whether Knaus intentionally broke the rules or was merely pushing the limits of template tolerances.
Howes said modifying C-posts would provide an aerodynamic advantage.
"Yeah, any bodywork area, everybody's always looking," Howes said. "It's an area that you'll go as far as you can because, yes, it will affect the performance of the car. That's the nature of this kind of racing, especially at Daytona. That's an area that teams will work in. The 48 obviously went too far."
He said he hasn't asked Knaus for an explanation on how or why the modifications were made. He said it could be that the template didn't fit properly.
"You work within the templates the best way you think and you're trying to do a better job than the next guy," Howes said. "And I did not see the grid on the car, so I can't tell exactly where it missed, but NASCAR said it wasn't right, so it's not right. We don't have an argument with that."
Series director John Darby said he believed the other three Hendrick Motorsports cars - those driven by Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne - passed inspection.
He added that the No. 48 team should be able to get things fixed.
"If you watch the damage that they can repair in 50 laps, they're very, very talented," Darby said. "They are pretty simple panels. It's a matter of cutting the old ones out, welding new ones in. It'll obviously go back through inspection to make sure all the templates are correct."