Thomas Bowles · Monday February 20, 2006
By all accounts, Sunday’s Daytona 500 was perhaps the most wide open Great American Race in years. Between a rookie winning the Bud Shootout the previous weekend, a surprise polewinner, and two fairly conservative Duel 150’s, it was clear heading into Sunday no one really stood out as a dominant force to take the win.
If there were any doubts about that theory, they were erased early on in Sunday’s action when three big names were back in the pack before 150 miles were complete. Jeff Gordon’s and Tony Stewart’s tango with the Turn 2 wall, followed by handling problems for everyone’s Daytona darling, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., left the trophy right out in the center of the race track for anyone to reach out and grab.
The void left behind gave NASCAR a chance to start the year with a shining moment. Could Sunday produce a veteran capturing his first 500 after years of trying (at one point, Mark Martin was close) or a driver with a fresh start cashing in a first win with a new team (Kurt Busch or Jamie McMurray were candidates before they took each other out). At worst, it seemed fans would get one of those storied comeback performances by their favorite drivers, as Stewart, Gordon, and Earnhardt, Jr. all fought back from those early-race struggles.
To be honest, virtually 42 of 43 drivers would have produced a feel-good story for NASCAR on this day. Instead, what they got was a nightmare"¦the "cheater" car won.
Not to say that Sunday’s winner, Jimmie Johnson, was actually cheating. That’ll be figured out through a vigorous post-race inspection process, through which NASCAR better tear apart every part of that race car to make sure Sunday’s win was legitimate. For while Johnson found himself sitting in Victory Lane Sunday, his usual crew chief, Chad Knaus, found himself sitting in front of a TV set, sent home through a NASCAR-induced suspension after the 48 car had an illegal setup discovered during Daytona qualifying.
It’s that Chad Knaus suspension, likely to be more than just the Daytona race (NASCAR will release their final verdict on the issue this week) that will haunt Johnson’s initial Daytona 500 win for years to come. The car that was found to be cheating last week was the one that won this week (after parts were confiscated, of course) and questions will be raised continuously about whether that car should have ever been allowed to race in the first place.
For the first time ever, as well, the Daytona 500 champion will not receive the full 185 points you get for taking the checkered flag first, as some sort of point deduction will likely result from the qualifying mishap. Other drivers, like Penske Racing’s Ryan Newman, were quick to question how the win will be viewed by not only the fans at large, but the NASCAR community.
"You know, it’s just disappointing. I mean, I think a lot of Jimmie Johnson and his talent, but I’m pretty sure at least three out of his last four, if not three out of his last three wins have had conflictions (sic) with the cars being illegal," said Newman. "You know, it’s not necessarily good for the sport."
Newman was being a little aggressive there"¦it’s actually three of the last five victories where Johnson’s win has come under scrutiny. At Las Vegas last March, the 48 car failed inspection for being too low after a convincing win, and in Dover that September, Johnson’s Victory Lane celebration came with questions about the car’s shocks. Nothing was ever declared illegal, but it was clear something was "borderline" about the car itself, as NASCAR quickly made a new shock rule based on the way the 48 car was set up.
All of that certainly contributes to some bad publicity for the sport, and certainly at some point NASCAR’s going to have to draw a stiffer line with penalties with this team that just continue to surface despite the fact they get caught, again and again. For Knaus himself, one of the brightest crew chiefs in the business might be served notice this time with a four-race suspension that should keep him from being a little bit too innovative in the future.
However, while the win will likely carry an asterisk, I think it’s necessary to applaud Johnson, not put him down. He won the race in the end without the help of any of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates over the final 10 laps, with Brian Vickers, Kyle Busch, and Jeff Gordon all suffering some sort of penalty, crash, or handling problem within the last 50 miles. While it’s true good Johnson buddy Casey Mears inevitably helped the 48 car in the closing stages, failing to go with fellow Dodge driver Ryan Newman in the race’s final lap, Johnson had such a head of steam up front that it really wouldn’t have mattered how many cars ganged up on him in the final 2.5 miles. Once the car was in front, it was there to stay.
Not only that, but 2006 is a make-or-break year for Johnson. For four straight years now, this driver and team have been oh-so-close to reaching NASCAR’s pinnacle, finishing in the Top 5 in points all four seasons, coming into the final race with a chance at the title in both 2004 and 2005. It’s a situation we see so often in sports"¦except those "continual runner-ups" slowly fade away after suffering too much adversity. The Buffalo Bills lost four Super Bowls in a row from 1990-93"¦they never made a fifth. Michelle Kwan came oh-so-close to gold at the Olympics twice in eight years"¦she never got a shot at a third.
In Johnson’s case, 2006 initially looked like it was headed in that same type of direction. Knaus’ suspension last Sunday followed an offseason of rumors and question marks surrounding the crew chief’s future with Hendrick; several media outlets had him all but signed with Evernham Motorsports, and several more doggedly followed reports Knaus wanted out at Hendrick after four years of championship failure, a rumor Knaus vehemently denied. Now, heading into Sunday Johnson found himself without that man who talks to him more like a coach does to a player than any crew chief in the business, a person whose calm voice would be especially helpful in the face of a restrictor-plate race, seeing as Johnson was blamed for starting two big wrecks at those types of tracks in 2005.
But except for an ill-timed postrace comment that "dedicated this 500 win to all the 48 haters," Johnson refused to let the controversy affect him, as he has so many other times the past few seasons of his career. It’s that resolve, that cool collectedness that has him listed as one of NASCAR’s best.
"If you think about what we overcame," said Johnson in Sunday’s night’s postrace teleconference, "and the pressure that’s on my team, in any sport"¦this is a huge, huge statement, something that I’m very proud of."
In the controversy to come this week, hopefully the sport as a whole doesn’t lose sight of that.
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