March 16, 2012

BRISTOL, Tenn. (AP) Five-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson said Hendrick Motorsports has no plans yet to replace his crew chief and car chief if their suspensions are not overturned.

Crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec go before NASCAR's chief appellate officer Tuesday, trying to reverse their six-race suspensions. Knaus was also fined $100,000 and Johnson was docked 25 points because NASCAR found illegal modifications on the No. 48 Chevrolet in the opening inspection for the Daytona 500.

A three-member appeals panel upheld the penalties this week.

"I'm definitely disappointed in what happened last Tuesday and I have hope that this next appeal will be heard and we'll have a different outcome," Johnson said Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway. "But there's no telling how it is going to shake out. I'm optimistic. 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."

The hearing before John Middlebrook next week is the final step in the appeals process. Middlebrook has heard three appeals since being named NASCAR's final arbitrator in 2010, and although he did not overturn any of the rulings, he reduced a portion of the penalties in all three cases.

The penalties were issued because a visual inspection at Daytona showed illegal aerodynamic modifications. Hendrick Motorsports has countered that the area in question passed inspection in 2011 and the same car raced in all four restrictor-plate events, while Knaus has said the car should have at least been inspected with the NASCAR templates before being ruled illegal.

"We felt like last Tuesday it was going to be overturned," Johnson said. "We were shocked with the penalties to start. If things stand, it will be a huge blow to the team. 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 and 25 points are a big number. It puts a premium back on winning and you don't have your crew chief and car chief, so winning is going to be that much more difficult."

Knaus has been suspended four times now, but has stayed out of trouble with NASCAR since 2007. A fifth suspension, two races in 2005, was reduced to probation on appeal.

Johnson has not faltered before in Knaus' absence - he won the 2006 Daytona 500 after Knaus had been sent home by NASCAR, and won the championship in 2006 and 2007, years Knaus served suspensions.

Four-time champion Jeff Gordon said his teammate is able to persevere.

"For me, it would be a disruption, for Jimmie it doesn't seem to be an issue," Gordon said. "The sign of a good crew chief is that when they step away - for a test or a race weekend or several race weekends - I think the testament of a great leader is someone that can step away and the people either underneath him or the people he puts in place can still follow through and execute as if they didn't skip a beat."

Hendrick Motorsports is probably the deepest in NASCAR, but Johnson said no plans have been put into place yet in case the suspensions hold.

"We've really tried to rule out that mindset or the reality of what could be there if Chad has to sit out," Johnson said. "We haven't worked on the backup plan."

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