Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson and his crew chief Chas Knaus were trying hard to brush aside questions about the mid-week penalties from NASCAR handed down on them and the #48 team for a rules infringement at Daytona.
"Obviously, there is a lot that has gone on since last weekend's race including the penalties that have been passed down," Johnson said at Phoenix on Friday. "But, I'm focused on this weekend's race. We need to go out there and get as many points as we can. Win the race, that is what [sponsor] Lowe's has hired us to do and what Hendrick Motorsports has worked for all winter long to get us prepared for this year."
Points are what matter now, after Johnson and his team got a 25pt driver and car owner's deduction for illegal modifications to part of the #48's bodywork at Daytona. With a disastrous Daytona 500 itself (he was wrecked on lap 2 by Elliott Sadler) that means that Johnson comes into this weekend's Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway with -23pts in the Sprint Cup championship.
"We were certainly disappointed in the way the race unfolded for us," he said about Monday night's events. "To make it 2.6-miles in the Daytona 500 and to be torn up just isn't the way we wanted to start the season."
Johnson made clear that he still had complete faith in his team and his long-time crew chief Chad Knaus, despite the embarrassment of failing scrutineering and now having the heavy penalties to work off.
"I have all the confidence in the world and everybody at Hendrick Motorsports on the #48 team and across the board," he insisted. "I believe in our system, I believe in my team, I believe in my guys, it is what it is. We are here to race and win the race this weekend."
The reaction to the penalties up and down pit road has been mixed. Johnson's Hendrrick team mate Jeff Gordon was of the opinion that "It seems to me to be sending a stronger message than needed to be sent ... I was surprised at how stiff a penalty that was."
But Joe Gibbs Racing's Denny Hamlin wasn't surprised at all. "I think NASCAR does not like the wool to be pulled over their eyes," he said, referring to the theory that NASCAR felt that it had been fooled by the #48 at the last restrictor-plate race of 2011 at Talladega and was in no mood to be a patsy this time around. "You always want to try to stay in NASCAR's good graces and I think that NASCAR has just had heavy eyes for those guys early in the season anyway," Hamlin added.
"There's a fine balance between where you cross the line and where you don't," said Richard Childress Racing's Kevin Harvick. "The only way to find out is to push things to the limit and see if you get away with it ... Sometimes they cross the line and you've got to find that line.."