Leaving the Daytona 500 near the bottom of the points standings is nothing new for Jimmie Johnson, but this year's poor Daytona performance coupled with the severe penalties NASCAR issued on Wednesday may leave the five-time Sprint Cup champion in too deep a hole to climb out this season.
On Feb. 17, Johnson's No. 48 failed a pre-Daytona inspection when NASCAR officials found something odd with the C-post of his Chevrolet. In laymen's terms, the C-post is contoured sheet metal located between the roof and rear of the windows behind the driver's side window. It was so suspect that NASCAR cut that area off Johnson's car to confiscate it. Crew chief Chad Knaus and his team had to order parts from the Hendrick Motorsports shop in Concord, N.C., that afternoon to have the car ready to go for Daytona 500 qualifying practice the next morning.
Because of that failed inspection, NASCAR suspended Knaus and car chief Ron Malec on Wednesday for the next six Sprint Cup events and from NASCAR until April 18. They're on probation until May 9. Additionally, Knaus was fined $100,000.
Johnson was penalized with the loss of 25 driver points. And given that he completed just one lap of Monday night's Daytona 500, he'll arrive in Phoenix at minus-23 points, 70 points behind Cup Series points leader Matt Kenseth. That puts him last in the standings.
There is no doubt Knaus is one of the most innovative crew chiefs in all of NASCAR, but he has already accumulated quite a rap sheet for pushing aside the rules. This is his fifth NASCAR suspension, though he had a two-race ban in 2005 overturned in the appeal process.
Perhaps with that in mind, Hendrick Motorsports announced it will appeal the sanctions and stressed that "adjustments to the No. 48 team personnel are not planned while the appeal is ongoing."
"Our organization respects NASCAR and the way the sanctioning body governs our sport," said Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports. "In this case, though, the system broke down, and we will voice our concerns through the appeal process."
In 2006, Knaus was sent home from Daytona after officials found a device that gave Johnson an aerodynamic advantage in qualifying. Darian Grubb took over as the interim crew chief and Johnson went on to win his only Daytona 500. So even with the points that were deducted for the penalty, Johnson and the team still left that race with positive points and would go on to win the first of five-straight NASCAR Sprint Cup titles that year.
A similar outcome seems unlikely in 2012. On Monday night, Johnson crashed early, leaving 42nd out of the 43 cars in the race.
A bad finish for Johnson in the Daytona 500 is no longer an aberration; it's become an expectation. In 2007, the year he won his second straight title, he finished 39th in the season opener. He followed that with Daytona finishes of 27th, 31st and 35th, but every year he recovered and won the championship. Last year, he again finished 27th, still made the Chase, but couldn't defend his title.
But given his recent struggles, the last thing he needs is for Knaus' suspension to be upheld.
Finding "an edge" is why NASCAR crew chiefs get paid so well and why they have to endure such pressure. Innovation is the name of the game in this business and crossing over the line is common, just as long as you don't get caught. But Johnson is one of NASCAR's biggest stars and Knaus has quite a reputation, so the scrutiny level is always extremely high.
Many experts predicted Johnson would win the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup title, but for that to happen now, it may be asking too much, even for Mr. Five Time.