Cars driven by Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Mark Martin were sent to NASCAR's research and development department for further examination after they finished 1-2 last week at Dover. While both cars passed inspection, NASCAR warned the teams they were close to exceeding the allowable tolerances in several areas around the trunk.
In some case, the cars were less than the thickness of a sheet of paper from failing.
"Well, we weren't cheating. The cars were not found illegal," Johnson said as he prepared for Sunday's Price Chopper 400. "It's not uncommon for cars to stick around at the tech center to be measured. Believe me if they weren't legal they wouldn't have been released. So it is what it is, and I hate that it's drawing speculation and concern but the cars passed tech and here we are."
NASCAR has very rigid rules when it comes to fitting templates. In most cases, the measurements must be within seven-thousandths of an inch.
"NASCAR's responsibility is to police the sport and manage the sport, but we also work very closely with the competitors on helping the competitors, making sure we get the right results," said John Darby, NASCAR's director of competition. "We called the team and said, 'Look, this thing is passing, but if the exact same car comes back here next week and if our guys' (measurements) are five-thousandths (of an inch) off, you're not going to be right at the tolerance next time, you're going to be over."
A week earlier, Johnson's team was criticized for testing tires for the race at Dover. Johnson helped pick the tire used for the race, and some felt that gave him an unfair advantage. He said as long as people are worried about the things his team is doing right, they might be distracted from their own programs.
"I hope that people are concerned and focused on nonissues which this deal is, it's a nonissue," he said. "This gives everybody something to write and talk about and hope it will be swirling around in the competitor's heads."
Martin isn't concerned, either.
"It's close, but it's legal," he said.
Martin will start Sunday's race from the pole -- and with a 10-point lead over Johnson in the standings. Martin ran 175.758 mph in time trials.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., another driver from the Hendrick Motorsports camp, was second at 175.279, followed by Brad Keselowski, Jamie McMurray, and Tony Stewart. Johnson qualified 11th.
Brain Vickers is running in the Chase for the Championship, and he applauded Johnson's team, especially crew chief Chad Knaus. He said it's up to everyone else in the playoffs to push the envelope to gain their own advantage.
"Let's say they did push every rule to the limit, but they did not break any," Vickers said. "Then yes, that is why they are running good. I don't think that's a secret. NASCAR gives us a box and you're supposed to use every bit of it, and if you don't, shame on you."
Knaus has been suspended for six races for pushing the rules too far. He said NASCAR's warning this week was to make sure everyone knew they were getting too close to going over the line.
"It's preventive maintenance more than anything to make sure we don't have a situation," Knaus said.
Reach Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org.