DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Don't hate the racer; hate the game.
That was Jimmie Johnson's message after he raced to his first Daytona 500 victory on Sunday night, driving straight into a firestorm of controversy.
Johnson and Co. were down a man, the most important man in the pits, and they still found a way to win one of the biggest races of the season -- the only race which teams spend more than one month preparing for. Afterward, Johnson dedicated the win to all the "haters of the 48 team."
Unfortunately for him, that's a legion whose members are growing.
Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, was ejected from Daytona after NASCAR found what it called an illegal modification on the No. 48 Chevrolet following qualifying. Since then, much of the Daytona focus was on cheating. NASCAR Chairman Brian France even addressed the media early in the week, hoping to talk about the deepest rookie class in NASCAR history or the start to another exciting season, but was inundated with talk of cheating.
We've got to crack down, he vowed that day.
If he's to be taken by his word, then everyone needs to get off of Johnson's back. After ejecting Knaus and alluding to further penalties on the crew chief in an effort to "get tough" on cheating, NASCAR inspected Johnson's No. 48 Chevy a half dozen times between qualifying and Sunday's race. On the morning of the Daytona 500, Johnson's car got a twice-over. And after the race, NASCAR spent almost three hours poring over the winning Monte Carlo.
The verdict from the get-tough bunch: Clean.
The reaction to Johnson's victory: Dirty.
"It's just disappointing," Ryan Newman said after finishing third behind Johnson and Casey Mears on Sunday. "I think a lot of Jimmie Johnson and his talent but I'm pretty sure that three of his past four wins have had confliction with the cars being illegal. It's not necessarily good for the sport.
"The point that should be driven home," Newman continued, "is if the situation happens time and time again with a certain individual, there's something more that should be done other than suspension. I think that's important to the sport."
Two things need to be made clear, though.
First, part of Newman's remarks are misleading. Second, part of his remarks are flat wrong.
While Knaus was penalized once last year following a win at Las Vegas, receiving a suspension and a fine, the team successfully appealed the ruling and Knaus was simply put on probation.
"That, I thought, would have sent a big message out to the racing world that 'Hey, look. They were accused of something, then it was overturned,' " Johnson said. "Because, as we all know, the appeal process is never overturned. So, with that in mind, I thought that was a big credit to our team."
The team next won the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway without begging any talk of penalties or cheating. The next victory was at Dover, where the car passed inspection but NASCAR got curious about Knaus' use of shock absorbers. The sanctioning body determined he was playing in the gray area, but was certain to make things more definite for the future, rewriting part of its rule book to address how shock absorbers should be constructed. It was a prime example of how NASCAR has always worked. The teams test out the gray areas and, when NASCAR thinks they've gone too far without actually breaking a rule, they outlaw the modification for future use.
Why didn't they take this approach to Knaus' modification last week, a raised rear window that sought to gain an aerodynamic advantage? After all, there is no specific rule outlawing what Knaus did. Perhaps it's because, while no rule addresses raised rear windows, NASCAR did have a template for the shape of that portion of the car and the No. 48 didn't fit the template. On Tuesday, NASCAR suspended Knaus for an additional three races.
Still, it's what they did at Dover, and Johnson thought that cleared his team's reputation once more.
"With the Dover incident and the shocks, NASCAR patted us on the back and said, 'Hey, great job, but we don't like these so we are going to outlaw them,' " he said. "If they were illegal, they would have penalized us."
Johnson's previous victory before this week's 500 was again at Lowe's Motor Speedway last fall. No talk of cheating there, either.
Which brings us to this week, where Knaus was penalized for an illegal modification during qualifying. Some have questioned whether the car should have been confiscated. But it's important to remember that there was no express rule forbidding what the 48 had done. That's why the infraction falls under a catch-all rule like illegal modification. With no notice that they weren't in a gray area, it's arguable that ejecting Knaus for a race after a qualifying penalty was harsh. But that's not what I'm arguing. My point is simply that confiscating the car would have been too much. And once the team got to keep the car, they went to work to fix it.
Before his car finished fourth in the Duel 150s, it was inspected. During the few days in between the Duels and the 500, it was observed. And before and after the race, it was scrutinized, again.
"I think he [Newman] is jealous he doesn't have a crew chief in there working as hard as I do to make his cars as good," Johnson said.
As for Newman's argument regarding what's best for the sport, he's absolutely right that outright cheating can be detrimental. But playing with setups and using the technology to gain advantages within the vast gray area left unmonitored by NASCAR's rule book is as much a part of the sport as trying to pass for the lead on the track.
Richard Petty, who won seven titles during a career which dates back to 1958, used to tell his team to "cheat neat," by which he meant to skirt the gray areas but never violate a specific rule. That's precisely what Knaus did.
One of the fascinating aspects of NASCAR is that the competition exists on so many levels. It exists among team owners competing to secure the best talent. It exists among drivers trying to one-up each other. It exists among pit crews trying to be faster than each other.
And it exists among crew chiefs in particular, who are constantly trying to toe the very edge-line of the rules in search of gaining a horsepower or two more than their counterparts without blatantly breaking the rules.
"I think all crew chiefs and engineers on all the race teams are all working areas over trying to find an advantage," Johnson said. "As we know, there are more templates now than there have ever been. It's just a deal where you've got to massage the gray areas. And I'm not saying that anybody else had a problem, but we're all flirting with that line and when you step over that line, it's NASCAR's job to call you out on it and they called us out and we're living with the consequences from that."
Those consequences were the loss of the 48's crew chief during the most important portion of Daytona Speedweeks. The consequences should not be an asterisk next to Johnson's Daytona victory.
Rupen Fofaria is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.