Jimmie Johnson understands that crew chief Chad Knaus was just "trying to protect himself post-race" when prior to last weekend's Good Sam 500 at Talladega he instructed Johnson to intentionally wreck the back end of the car if they won. Still, Johnson said, "he made a foolish statement."
"That's really it at the end of the day," Johnson said Friday at Martinsville Speedway. "That car passed inspection multiple times at an impound race and was pushed out onto the grid. Certainly it's something we didn't want to take place, and you can tell by my reaction it was something that I've never heard from him in the car before. … Unfortunately, it happened for really no reason at all."
At issue is whether Knaus was trying to cover up something illegal on Johnson's No. 48.
As Johnson strapped into his car before last Sunday's race, Knaus leaned into the window and said, "If we win this race, you have to crack the back of the car. Got it?"
Unbeknownst to Knaus, his words were caught on NASCAR.com's RaceBuddy, broadcasted to anyone who was listening.
"Really?" Johnson replied.
"Yes," Knaus responded. "Got it? You don't have to have to hit it hard; you don't have to destroy it. But you've gotta do a donut and you've gotta hit the back end, or somebody's gotta hit you in the ass-end or something. OK?"
Knaus has since defended himself, explaining that he didn't want to take any chances that the bump drafting that goes on at Talladega would cause damage to the rear end of the car and ultimately lead to it failing post-race inspection. No doubt he had on his mind Clint Bowyer, who last year was docked 150 championship points when his car failed post-race inspection following the Chase opener at New Hampshire.
On Friday, Johnson repeated several times that his car had gone though and passed multiple inspections. He also stressed the point that it was an impound race, meaning no tinkering of the car was allowed after qualifying, before which his car had to pass an inspection.
NASCAR officials met with Knaus and Johnson on Friday morning at Martinsville. Spokesman Kerry Tharp then released the following statement: "We have a responsibility to the rest of the garage area to ensure that everyone is competing on a level playing field with the inspection processes we have in place. The 48 organization knows that from this occurrence that their car is likely to be a regular customer at the R&D Center for post-race inspection the balance of this season."
Given Knaus' reputation as a crew chief who likes to test the rules – he's been fined and/or suspended by NASCAR several times for rule violations – whenever a situation like this arises with him, there are always going to be questions.
When asked if he's afraid this latest incident will tarnish his reputation, Johnson responded, "Hell no. Everybody in this garage area knows what this team has done to win these five championships. Our car, with the success we've had over the years, has been through the R&D center far more than any other race car. When we've been out of line, we've been put in place. … The success of this race team is due to a lot of hard work and this has no bearing on it."
As for his relationship with Knaus, Johnson said this latest incident hasn't done anything to harm the accord between driver and crew chief.
"There's no drama there," Johnson said. "We've always prided ourselves on being honest with one another. And there are times when he gets under my skin and times I get under his. That's just pro sports. It's just the way it is.
"We're racers. And in the heat of the moment things get said, and you gotta be man enough to deal with those things when they come from your crew chief or when their chief hears it from a driver."
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- Chad Knaus