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.
''Losing Steve and the momentum that we have, the chemistry that we have, is definitely the toughest part of this for us,'' Gordon said Friday as the team - now being directed by car chief Jeff Meendering - prepared his Chevrolet for practice and qualifying at New Hampshire.
''I have kind of gone off of some of Jimmie's experience from last year where he has experienced some things that have actually helped them when Chad came back and actually made them a more solid team. I am hoping for the same.''
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.
''I think, looking back on last season, it forced us to be more prepared leaving the shop, more prepared each morning when we woke up for practice and qualifying,'' Johnson said. ''For the race, we really had to think things through and couldn't operate from the hip as freely as before.
''I think that helped us and I think that is more ingrained in our culture at Hendrick to have a plan as we go to each race weekend, each morning, each practice session, each time we are on track. ... We are just prepared for every scenario possible right now as we get into practice, into qualifying and we will continue to do that through the weekend.''
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.
''We went through this and some of the things became more clear to us, as far as what NASCAR's tolerance on their data was, and it wasn't as clear to us before last Friday as it is now,'' Duchardt said. ''The second thing is that ... we just felt like rather than prolong it, prolong the discussion around this, we'd just put it behind us, focus on moving forward and get the suspension over with as soon as we could so we could focus on the Chase.''
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.
''We have had great race cars on the No. 48 team, but we have had some crazy things happening to us the last four or five weeks and, with the loss of the 100 points, we are in a little more vulnerable situation than No. 24,'' Johnson said.
''So momentum is certainly on our minds. Top 10s, top fives (are) on our minds ... and establishing momentum with this new situation, and then be ready for Chad to come back to get that momentum to run for the championship again.''