NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Jimmie Johnson speaks during a press conference at Martinsville Speedway Friday, Oct. 28, 2011, in Martinsville, Va. (AP Photo/The Roanoke Times, Rebecca Barnett)
MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Jimmie Johnson said it's "crazy" to suggest his reputation has been tarnished by crew chief Chad Knaus' instructions to mess up the rear bumper if he won at Talladega last week.
Knaus was recorded telling the five-time defending champion that if he won, he needed to "crack the back of the car," apparently to build an explanation in case the car did not past post-race inspection. The website SBnation.com says it obtained the recording from a fan.
On the recording, Knaus is heard telling Johnson: "If we win this race, you have to crack the back of the car. Got it?"
"Really?" Johnson replies, sounding surprised. He said Friday Knaus had never made a similar request before.
"Yes," Knaus replies. "Got it? You don't have to have to hit it hard, you don't have to destroy it. But you've gotta do a donut and you've gotta hit the back end, or somebody's gotta hit you in the (back) or something. OK?"
Knaus said earlier in the week he made the request to protect Johnson in case 500 miles of driving on the superspeedway had knocked the body of the car out of alignment, possibly making it susceptible to failing inspection.
"At the end of the day, while Chad was trying to protect himself post-race, he made a foolish statement. That's really it," Johnson said Friday at Martinsville Speedway.
He laughed at the notion his reputation was damaged when the conversation was made public, adding the story has "no bearing" on his team's accomplishments.
"Everybody in this garage area knows what this team has done to win these five championships," he said. "And our car, with the success we've had over the years, has been through the R&D center far more than any other race car. And when we've been out of line, we've been put in place."
Johnson has won 37 races in his five title-winning seasons and this year.
He stands seventh in the Chase for the championship this year and is 50 points behind leader Carl Edwards. Johnson finished 26th at Talladega in a race won by Clint Bowyer.
Johnson and Knaus met with NASCAR President Mike Helton, Vice President Robin Pemberton and Sprint Cup Series director John Darby on Friday at the track, and series spokesman Kerry Tharp said NASCAR made it clear that "we're very serious" about the integrity of inspections.
"As the governing body, we just felt like we were doing our due diligence to look into this and gain as much insight as we could about the comments that (Knaus) made pre-race," Tharp said, adding that Knaus reiterated that he was just asking Johnson to cover his bases in the race.
"We've got to do everything that we can to make sure the competition is equal, balanced and fair with the inspection processes that we have," Tharp said of the sport's governing body. "We believe that we do that and we know that the competitors know that we want it that way."
Other drivers viewed the request by Knaus in disparate ways.
"Everyone is going to push the limit as far as they can, and if they felt like they were really close on tolerance, any kind of damage would help give some kind of explanation," Denny Hamlin said, noting that all the contact on superspeedways can adjust the shape of cars.
But, Hamlin said, the drivers count on NASCAR to be on top of efforts to skirt the rules.
"If there's any kind of impropriety, NASCAR doesn't like that," he said. "They don't like the wool to be pulled over their eyes and it's up to them to make sure we have a level playing field, and us, all other 42 competitors, want them to make sure that we're all on the same level playing field and they're going to do their best to make sure that that happens."
For other drivers, like fifth-place Kevin Harvick, "It's one of those things where you do what you have to do to try to win the championship and you suffer the consequences later."
Having that chance to win the championship, he said, is hard to ignore.
"I am all for doing whatever you have to do to win the championship and sometimes you have to do what you have to do and what you think is right," he said. "Some people may not agree, but at this point it is really all about trying to win the race and trying to win a championship."
Johnson said the flap might cause him to be more careful with his car, especially if he wins to avoid giving the impression that he's purposely damaging his car.
"I certainly hope to win and I guess it would cross my mind to think, `OK, be very gentle here. Park the car,"' he said, laughing. "But I hadn't thought about it a bit."