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Gordon, Johnson aim to keep momentum despite penalties

By By MIKE HARRIS, AP Auto Racing Writer
LOUDON, N.H. — The last time crew chief Chad Knaus was suspended by NASCAR, driver Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team responded by winning two of the four races he missed.
Once Knaus returned, the team just kept right on clicking the rest of the season and wound up with Johnson winning the 2006 Nextel Cup title.
Now, Knaus is gone again — this time for six races — and Steve Letarte, crew chief for Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 Hendrick entry, also will be sidelined for the same period, both the result of their teams getting caught last week at Sonoma with illegally modified fenders on the Car of Tomorrow.
The penalties handed down by NASCAR included 100-point reductions for both drivers and a $100,000 fine for each crew chief.
It’s the latest example of NASCAR’s zero-tolerance policy regarding its new COT, the vehicle that has been seven years in development and is intended to be safer, produce better competition and be less expensive for teams to build and race.
With Gordon still leading the standings by 171 points and Johnson falling from third to fifth and still solidly in competition for the Chase for the championship, the biggest problem faced by the two elite teams appears to be the possibility of losing momentum.
Johnson will work with his longtime car chief and friend Ron Malec as his temporary crew chief for the next six weeks.
He said losing Knaus for a month at the start of last season — after Knaus was flagged for cheating in Daytona 500 qualifying — actually might have been a positive for the entire Hendrick team in the long run.
Team owner Rick Hendrick could have appealed the penalties, and Knaus and Letarte would have been able to continue coming to the racetrack until the appeal was heard. But Hendrick, despite reiterating that he believes the penalties are too severe, announced Thursday that the team would not appeal.
Doug Duchardt, vice president of development for the Hendrick team, said Friday the decision was based on understanding better and accepting what NASCAR is trying to accomplish with its Car of Tomorrow and just trying to get the penalties behind them.
Sunday’s Lenox Industrial Tools 300 is the beginning of what NASCAR calls the ‘‘Race to the Chase,’’ the last 10 regular-season races before the start of the 12-driver, 10-race Chase.
Hendrick cars have won 10 of 16 races this season, including five of seven COT races. Both Gordon and Johnson have won four races in 2007.
Heading into the weekend, Johnson appears a solid bet to make the Chase for the fourth straight year, despite the penalty. He is still 257 points ahead of 12th-place Dale Earnhardt Jr.
But the loss of 100 points still isn’t a comfortable situation.