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Johnson drives in the shadow of scandal

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Jimmie Johnson is not Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire or Marion Jones or Lance Armstrong. If there's an asterisk to be put next to tainted accomplishments, don't include Johnson and his Daytona 500 victory.

A cheating scandal at the start of Speedweeks has unfairly tarnished Johnson's reputation and cast a shadow on the biggest win of his career.

Yes, NASCAR caught crew chief Chad Knaus making an illegal modification to the No. 48 Chevrolet and kicked him out of Daytona. But with the head coach banned from the season-opening event, Johnson prevented his team from unraveling.

Then, driving a legal car that sailed through post-race inspection without nary a misplaced bolt or screw, Johnson won the Super Bowl of racing.

But his rivals instantly wondered if the win was indeed legitimate, if the car wasn't rigged in a way NASCAR's inspectors couldn't discover, and if Johnson even deserved to be there.

There's no doubt it has spoiled what should be the crowning moment of Johnson's five-year NASCAR career.

''We're not excited to be in this position and have this negative thing around us right now,'' he said Monday as his car was inducted into the museum at Daytona International Speedway. ''We won this race. We worked our butts off for it. We just want the respect that comes along with winning the Daytona 500.''

He'll be hard-pressed to get it, and that's unfortunate for Johnson.

Johnson is not the cheater in this situation. His only crime was trusting his crew chief to prepare him a car that was capable of competing in the Daytona 500 while meeting NASCAR's approval.

He doesn't ask questions, doesn't inquire about setups, shocks or spoilers. His only job is to climb into the car Knaus gives him and go as fast as he can.

So when Knaus or any other crew chief tries to sneak something through tech - and make no mistake about, most in the garage are in constant search of a way to get something past NASCAR - the driver is the last one to know.

''Your crew chief, no matter how great a relationship he has with the driver, the less people that know about (cheating) the better,'' Dale Earnhardt Jr. said.

Has his own crew chief ever cheated? Junior didn't flinch.

''He knows I got a big mouth,'' he said. ''If he's cheating, he ain't telling me.''

So Johnson wasn't in cahoots with Knaus, and if anyone else on the crew was involved, they aren't saying. Instead, they kept their mouths shut, rebuilt the car to make it legal and got ready for the Great American Race.

With or without Knaus, winning on Sunday was never going to be easy. Johnson has a shaky record at restrictor-plate tracks and has routinely been blamed for triggering multi-car accidents.

No matter how strong his car was, making it to the finish line was still going to come down to patience, skill and luck. Johnson had to look back at all his previous mistakes and avoid repeating them.

He couldn't be too aggressive, or force his way to the front too early and risk showing his hand. So he stayed low until it was time to go.

Johnson charged to the front with 14 laps remaining, then held on over two restarts to complete the cleanest Daytona race he's ever run.

His friends in the garage recognized that and applauded Johnson's effort.

''The fact that they got caught earlier in the week took every doubt out of my mind that they actually would do anything to possibly cheat in this race,'' said runner-up Casey Mears. ''I think it was a well earned victory.''

Still, Johnson will probably have to defend this win and his team for a long time to come.

NASCAR will likely lengthen Knaus' suspension this week and probably dock Johnson points that will knock him out of the lead. The team will not appeal and will not complain. They'll accept it and go on to next week's race in California, trying as best as they can to prove they are legitimate.

''We just want to get on with life,'' car owner Rick Hendrick said. ''It's not fun for us. It's not been fun for the team. We're just doing the best we can. We're not ducking it.''