Well-deserved win

Jonathan Baum
Yahoo! Sports

Controversy is surrounding Jimmie Johnson's Daytona 500 win.

It's understandable. It's also unfortunate.

Crew chief Chad Knaus cheated. He got caught. He rightly was kicked out of Daytona. The 48 team could face further penalties, including a points deduction.

That should be the end of the story.

The car Jimmie Johnson drove to victory on Sunday was legal. The car he drove to a fourth-place finish – from the back of the pack – in his Gatorade Duel qualifier was legal. His victory, therefore, was legal.

Now, those protesting Johnson's win call into question the logic of allowing a team to continue racing after it had been caught cheating earlier in the week/weekend. And that's a perfectly fair criticism – one that NASCAR might have to address in the future.

But as it stands now, NASCAR generally doesn't penalize an entire team – points deductions aside – for one man's indiscretion, even if that man is the crew chief. It's not unlike a baseball team continuing to play despite its manager being ejected or suspended. That team wouldn't be forced to forfeit its games.

Should NASCAR change its approach? Maybe, maybe not.

But as long as NASCAR continues to follow its own precedent, teams can continue on without one offending part.

Johnson and the No. 48 team did continue on – in style. And for that, they deserve credit.

Credit few seem willing to give.

Now to be clear, it's Knaus' own fault that the focus Sunday night and in the ensuing days isn't where it should be. And fans and fellow competitors certainly have the right to question whether the No. 48 team's punishment was severe enough.

But what's being overshadowed is a story of redemption. For it's Johnson who had gone from an ever-improving superspeedway driver on the cusp of his first restrictor plate win to the bane of other contenders' existence after being involved in (and responsible for?) several wrecks on the big tracks last year.

Johnson also is the guy who, despite a spirited comeback, fell just short of a title two years ago and who couldn't stay in contention through 400 miles at Homestead last year, once again falling short of championship glory.

The critics said he didn't belong on superspeedways and he couldn't quite win championships.

Well, the championship question remains open, but Johnson – who admitted Sunday to previously being too aggressive at Daytona and Talladega – proved on NASCAR's biggest stage that he could win the biggest race out there ... on a big track.

While he was accused of blocking – really, how many race-leading drivers at Daytona and Talladega don't block? – he ran a smart, clean race. He worked well with his teammates, at times helping them to the race lead, and kept himself at or near the front of the field all day.

All this despite his team losing its leader, its architect, its (mad?) genius.

Perhaps Johnson is slowly following in the footsteps of teammate/boss Jeff Gordon. No, he doesn't have the talent of the four-time champ, but he is rapidly developing the same love-him-or-hate-him status among NASCAR fans. (Surely being Gordon's protégé has something to do with that.)

With that, there are many fans and perhaps some drivers who already didn't like Johnson. And after this week, there very well could be legions more.

But remember, Chad Knaus and not Jimmie Johnson was the villain at Daytona (unless you believe Johnson was complicit in the cheating; then it's a whole different story). If anything, Johnson was victimized by his crew chief's arrogance.

Johnson persevered, overcoming the obstacles to win the Daytona 500. And for that, he should be applauded.

And for those who disagree, Johnson has a message:

"I'm dedicating this to all the haters of the 48 team," he said after the win.

It's easy to harbor ill will toward the No. 48 team after Daytona. It's understandable and justifiable.

What's harder is to give the guys who stuck it out through the weekend the respect they deserve.

But that doesn't mean they don't deserve it.

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