Penalty in past, Johnson focused on title

Now sure, Tony Stewart won the rain-shortened NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Auto Club Speedway on Sunday. Conventional wisdom would say he was the big winner last week.

However, I would venture to say the biggest winner last week had to be Jimmie Johnson.

Last Tuesday, the National Stock Car Racing Commission’s chief appellate officer, John Middlebrook, rescinded all the components of the Daytona penalty on the No. 48 team, except the $100,000 fine of crew chief Chad Knaus. That means the six-race suspensions of Knaus and car chief Ron Malec, as well as the 25-point owner and driver points penalties, were rescinded.

Then, on Sunday, Johnson’s engine was about to let go, but the rain came first. The race was called, and Johnson finished in 10th place.

That was Johnson’s fourth top-10 finish of the season in the five races run so far. When you couple that with the return of his 25 points from the rescinded NASCAR penalty, Johnson and the No. 48 team now find themselves in ninth place in the points.

That’s a far cry from the 49th place they were in when they pulled out of Daytona International Speedway in February.

This team is revved up and ready to go racing. If you look at the history of Middlebrook’s rulings since he became the chief appellate officer in 2010, I think the No. 48 team maybe was expecting a little bit of relief. In reality, it got a lot.

The way the team handled itself after Daytona, with both the penalties and being wrecked out on Lap 2, has been unbelievable. Again, Johnson has finished in the top 10 in the past four races. Running this well this early in the season, combined with having the penalties rescinded, might be the springboard this team needs to be back in the hunt for a sixth championship.

This team has to have its swagger back. Being wrecked out at Daytona was totally out of Johnson’s control. This team has run competitively these past four races, and, basically, you have to say it challenged the establishment on the penalty deal and, for all practical purposes, won. I mean, short of the $100,000 fine, which still has to be paid, this group held its own against the sanctioning body.

The race at Martinsville Speedway is this weekend, and it’s one of Johnson’s favorite tracks. We might see the beginning of another epic battle for the championship, but this time it’s the No. 14 of Tony Stewart and the No. 48 of Johnson. This could be the Clash of the Titans on the short track this weekend. It really is shaping up to be a fun race.

I think it would be fair to say this No. 48 team is after some redemption this year. Sure, Johnson and his team are five-time champions, but last year they were finally proven to be human. They were finally beaten. That perception of invincibility is gone. I also said it a couple times in the offseason — sitting at that head table at the awards banquet for five straight years and then having to watch Stewart get all the accolades last December is a motivator.

You pull and feed off that energy and desire to get back to the top. That’s what separates the good teams from the exceptional teams. Great race car drivers all have it. Johnson has it. So do Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch. Even Denny Hamlin is getting some of that swagger back that he completely lost in 2011.

So all these great drivers head to the paper clip — Martinsville Speedway. With the competition the way it is today in NASCAR, we have 15 to 20 cars that are going to be capable of winning Sunday on that little half-mile racetrack. You have to go from the drop of the green flag.

There isn’t a lot of room for 43 of those big ol’ stock cars, so be expecting some rooting and gouging Sunday as the fast cars fight their way to the front.