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Foes look askance at Hendrick's team

Jimmie Johnson's crew has escaped NASCAR's wrath twice this season. Other teams have noticed.

By BRANT JAMES
Published October 2, 2005


TALLADEGA, Ala. - The envious and the agitated perceive Hendrick Motorsports and its four drivers as the privileged class in the Nextel Cup garage. Its sponsors are more high-powered than most, its drivers more packaged and its Teflon finish more resistant to trouble.

It's an interesting notion considering that the team placed just one driver in the Chase for the Championship - and that it wasn't four-time series champion Jeff Gordon. Meanwhile Roush Racing, winner of consecutive driver titles with Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch, qualified all five.

But as Hendrick's Jimmie Johnson starts today's UAW-Ford 500 at Talladega Superspeedway atop the points and another mini-cyclone of controversy, it's clear the two-time points runnerup and his team of bright minds and twinkly smiles are in the collective heads of their competitors. And he has shock absorbers tricked up by clever crew chief Chad Knaus to thank for it.

With eight races left to decide the Nextel Cup champion, Johnson and Knaus seem to have everyone - Chase contenders or not - thinking about Johnson's charmed life. Yet this is a track where he has struggled, where any driver's championship hopes could careen down the backstretch at 180 mph - upside down.

Advantage: Johnson.

"We are our biggest competitor out there," Knaus said. "What we do on a week-to-week basis is what's going to determine this championship. I'm not saying we've got a hold on it, but I feel like we can win this championship if we don't mess up."

With the special treatment the team gets, skeptics would suggest, how could it possibly mess this up?

The evidence:

Johnson's winning No.48 Chevrolet and the No.5 of teammate Kyle Busch were found to be at illegal heights in postrace inspections at Las Vegas in the spring. But the ensuing suspensions issued to Knaus and Busch crew chief Alan Gustafson were overturned - a rarity - on appeal by the National Stock Car Racing Commission.

The garage howls.

Johnson's winning car and Busch's runnerup Chevrolet were found to have modified shock absorbers last weekend at Dover that were in breach of "the spirit" of NASCAR rules, series director John Darby said. So a technical bulletin was issued to tie up the loophole, not a penalty or fine.

The garage howls again.

Richard Childress Racing's Kevin Harvick was found to have three violations regarding the fuel line and shocks in his No.29 Chevrolet after qualifying second Friday at Talladega, and crew chief Todd Berrier was ejected from the track on Saturday as the precursor to a presumed lengthy suspension.

Huh?

Childress' eyebrow raises behind his stylish brown sunglasses, but he's too savvy after 36 years in NASCAR to be too openly critical of NASCAR.

But, Richard, doesn't there appear to be favoritism in NASCAR?

"I'd better not comment on that," he said, grinning.

Is NASCAR's credibility at stake?

"I'm biting my lip," he said, smiling.

Hendrick Motorsports wins appeals, won't you appeal this one?

"No," he said. "I'd come closer to winning the largest lottery in the history of the United States than I would winning a NASCAR appeal."

The perceived double standard irks many, but Hendrick's tactic has been consistent in skirting big trouble: don't blatantly force NASCAR's hand. Berrier's indiscretion came after he was suspended once this season. Even Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose fortune is often equated with that of the sport, lost 25 points and the lead in the driver standings last fall after uttering a profanity in Victory Lane at Talladega.

Johnson said the disconcerting news for the rest of the garage is the setback with shocks won't make the team conservative. As Johnson puts it, "back to the drawing board."

And as for those three Hendrick cars not in the Chase, he sees them as buddies pushing toward his goal of a first driver title.

"Yeah, I see his point," said Roush's Busch, the defending series champion. "It's mind games and he's already starting too early."

Indeed.