Jimmie Johnson is driving in reverse.
There he is, deep at the bottom of a very odd set of Sprint Cup point standings. Johnson’s point total looks like something from an algebra textbook.
It’s negative 23.
All of a sudden, Johnson is 70 points behind series leader (and Daytona 500 winner) Matt Kenseth. Adding to the embarrassment is the fact that Johnson completed only one lap in the Daytona 500 before parking with damage from an accident.
So, for the year, he has one lap, minus 23 points and some serious negative publicity.
The road back starts this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway, almost a continent away from Daytona Beach, its fire, its rain and its willingness to put the 48 team under artillery fire.
Johnson’s troubles began more than a week before the 500 when NASCAR inspectors flagged the team for illegal modifications to the C post areas of its Daytona 500 car. No one was penalized on the spot because the car had not been used in competition, but it seemed likely that NASCAR eventually would pull out its big guns against crew chief Chad Knaus, a repeat offender in the massaging of sheet metal in key areas.
And that’s exactly what happened Wednesday afternoon as the sanctioning body announced a broadside aimed directly at the Hendrick team. Knaus was fined $100,000 and suspended for six races. Car chief Ron Malec was suspended for six races, and 25 points were deducted from Johnson’s sad total of 2.
Team owner Rick Hendrick, who has been down this road with Knaus several times, immediately announced that the team will appeal the penalties.
“Our organization respects NASCAR and the way the sanctioning body governs our sport," Hendrick said. "In this case, though, the system broke down, and we will voice our concerns through the appeal process."
That keeps the garage-area door open – at least temporarily – to Knaus and Malec, as they can continue to work at speedway locations while the matter is under appeal.
The Hendrick defense apparently will center on the team’s claim that the car in question has been raced several times in exactly the same configuration that officials rejected at Daytona. That approach has not impressed NASCAR officials or the appeals committee in the past, however.
NASCAR has suspended Knaus on four other occasions, although one of the suspensions was overturned on appeal. Two of Johnson’s five championships were won in seasons in which Knaus missed races under suspension.
Johnson and the 48 team started this season determined to return to the top rung of the sport after seeing their championship run ended at five last year by Tony Stewart. In the preseason, Johnson said everything was in order for a strong start, a run at the Chase and the hunt for a sixth title.
That plan ran into a buzzsaw at Daytona, and now Johnson rolls into the Valley of the Sun for this week’s Subway Fresh Fit 500 looking to run his first multiple-lap point race of the season – and to make up a boatload of points.
The lasting impact of Wednesday’s announcement remains to be seen. Johnson and Knaus can grit their teeth and go full bore to prove they’re still on their game, or the team can become bogged down in what has been an ugly start to the season.
Considering what the 48 group has accomplished in the past, it seems safe to expect Johnson and Co. to rebound, move into the top 10 in points quickly and regain its standard place in the higher reaches of the sport. But the success or failure of the Hendrick appeal could play a big role in which direction the team moves – and in how fast that happens.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.