- Terry Blount, ESPN Staff Writer
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Just a coincidence?
Well, not having Steve Letarte on the pit box didn't cause Gordon to spin while leading at Watkins Glen last week with two laps to go. And Johnson was winless in the six races before Chad Knaus served his suspension.
At an organization with the depth of Hendrick Motorsports, a crew chief missing races isn't a devastating loss. But having them back is a morale boost for Gordon and Johnson as they make the stretch run to the Chase.
"There's no doubt that Steve just brings a little something special," Gordon said Friday after winning the pole for Sunday's 3M Performance 400 said. "It's just a little bit of confidence and chemistry that elevates the whole team. He's the guy who's gotten us in position we're in, leading the points, winning four races and qualified for the Chase."
Gordon increased his lead in the standings from 171 to 344 points with six top-10 finishes during Letarte's absence, but things haven't gone quite a smoothly for Johnson.
He fell from fifth to seventh in the standings due to crashes in Chicago and Indianapolis, but Johnson also had four top-10 finishes while Knaus was serving his sentence.
Knaus and Letarte were fined $100,000 and suspended for six races because of unapproved body modifications found on Johnson's No. 48 Chevy and Gordon's No. 24 Impala before the road race at Sonoma, Calif.
Jeff Meendering filled in for Letarte on race weekends and Ron Malec subbed for Knaus.
"Jeff and Ron did a phenomenal job, but it wasn't just them," Knaus said. "When something like this happens, everybody steps up. We've got some real solid players."
Knaus and Letarte weren't sitting at home knitting during their suspensions. Both men were in the shop all week guiding team preparations for upcoming races.
It's the weekday decisions that enable a team to bring cars to the track capable of winning. But both men hated being away from the weekend action.
"It was very frustrating," Letarte said. "This is what we do. It's never a good thing not to be at the racetrack. You want to be in conversation with your driver.
"I would do everything I could Monday through Thursday to prepare them, but when they left and came out to the racetrack, they were on their own."
Being suspended was a new experience for Letarte, who is in his third season as Gordon's crew chief. But NASCAR's version of the penalty box was nothing new for Knaus.
He spent the first four races of last season on suspension for body violations found before the Daytona 500. Knaus said going through it last season didn't make it any easier this time.
"It's tough and it's painstaking not being here," Knaus said. "But I don't feel any regret or remorse or anything like that. We didn't feel like we were breaking the rules. I've said it a million times and I stand by that."
All the templates fit on the two Hendrick cars at Sonoma, but Knaus and Letarte changed the body in between the templates, raising the sheet metal above the front fender.
NASCAR warned the teams previously that any changes to the body on the Car of Tomorrow models would bring a severe penalty.
Knaus and Letarte saw it as innovation. NASCAR officials didn't, so both crew chiefs say they learned some new boundaries.
"The sport has changed," Letarte said. "We all know the direction it's going."
The direction is zero tolerance for crew chiefs that break the rules. But the top crew chiefs, and Knaus and Letarte are two of the best, still find a way to tweak the cars and make them a little better.
They'll need to be a little better for Gordon or Johnson to win Sunday. Chevrolet drivers have won 17 of 22 races this season, but the Chevy teams have gone 12 consecutive races without a victory at Michigan.
Gordon was the last Chevy driver to go take the checkered flag on the 2-mile oval back in 2001.
Letarte hadn't graduated to crew chief when that happened. He was a 22-year-old tire specialist and mechanic for Gordon's team. A lot has changed in six years.
"I'm a 28-year-old guy who didn't go to college," Letarte said. "But I have a wonderful profession."
Now he gets to practice his profession again after some unwanted free time, but he's not getting all sentimental over his return from temporary banishment.
"If you're asking if I laid awake at night thinking about it, no," Letarte said. "I lay awake more at night trying to figure out how we're going to win."
Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.