DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - This should be a great week for Jimmie Johnson. He has just won the Super Bowl of stock-car racing, the Daytona 500. He leaves Florida on Monday for a whirlwind media tour of New York capped by an appearance with David Letterman.
Then his private jet will whisk the 30-year-old driver off toward his Southern California home and the second stop on NASCAR’s 36-race Nextel Cup season.
But this could also be one of the longest weeks of his life.
The “C” word is going to come up again and again ... maybe in the form of a joke by Letterman, likely in the form of taunts of by NASCAR fans.
Did cheating play a role in Johnson’s victory Sunday afternoon at Daytona International Speedway?
Johnson faced that question all last week after his crew chief, Chad Knaus, was suspended from the Daytona 500 because Johnson’s car failed technical inspection following the previous Sunday’s qualifying runs.
It was no minor infraction. The glass in Johnson’s rear window had a bulge that redirected the flow of the air as it rushed across his car’s roof at 190 mph. Johnson’s qualifying run was voided. And Knaus, who has been caught bending the rules five previous times, was issued a one-race penalty that NASCAR has hinted could be extended.
”I don’t know how to answer these questions,” Johnson said more than once. And Sunday he found the perfect response.
He won the Daytona 500.
But instead of making the questions go away, Johnson’s victory will only create a wider airing of a popular debate. How rampant is cheating in NASCAR? And should we even care?
After all, the sport is rooted in the hills of the rural southeast as a Saturday night release for men running moonshine as an occupation. Bending the rules until they looked like a hula hoop was part of the game ... part of the attraction.
“I got caught with soft times and too much engine,” admitted Richard Petty, the sport’s all-time win leader this week. “My sponsor (STP) at the time loved it because it got us a lot of newspaper coverage. I don’t think Cheerios would like it now.”
Which is part of the problem. It’s surprising that Mr. Clean hasn’t been named the official sponsor of NASCAR’s program to clean up it’s image — although the Old Guard fears the bigger problem is more one of sterility.
“Does cheating still exist?” asked Petty with a smile. “I’d say everyone is trying to push the edge of what is legal. If it is going on ... I’d tell my guys don’t get caught.”
But Knaus did get caught last week. And although he wasn’t there, his driver did win the Daytona 500. Which will raise more questions.
And most of the media were still on the grounds three hours later when it was announced that Johnson’s Chevy Monte Carlo had indeed passed the mandatory post-race technical inspection.
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