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Johnson drives off cheating charges Daytona champ defends team from criticism

Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson yukked it up with David Letterman on Monday night in New York, he'll schmooze with Regis and Kelly today, then it's off to Hollywood on Wednesday to joke around with Jimmy Kimmel.

But he sure isn't laughing about some postrace comments by Ryan Newman.

"This still could be the first opportunity for NASCAR to pull away a victory if the thing is still illegal," said a smiling and laughing Newman, who ran second behind Johnson in the late stages of Sunday's Great American Race before finishing third. "We'll have to see what comes of it."

Nothing came of it. Johnson's No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet passed inspection. But Newman's comments helped fuel criticism of Johnson after he had won stock car racing's most famous race. Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, was suspended by NASCAR last week and Johnson won with team engineer Darian Grubb taking over the all-important role.

"The sad thing is . . . everything that's come with this victory -- there's obviously headlines and statements being made by other drivers -- we don't want to be in this position," Johnson said at Monday morning's champion's breakfast after his winning car was placed on display at the Daytona USA theme attraction. "Our car has been through tech [inspection] three or four times since then.

"We won this race. We worked our butts off for it. We hate that what happened earlier in the week took place, but we're moving forward."

Moving forward means a Daytona 500 championship media tour for Johnson as the series heads west for Sunday's Auto Club 300 at California Speedway. It also might mean a different edge to a rivalry between Johnson and Newman, who dueled for the rookie title -- won by Newman -- in 2002.

"I think a lot of Jimmie Johnson and his talent, but I'm pretty sure at least three out of his last four, if not three out of his last three wins have had [conflicts] with the cars being illegal," Newman said Sunday. "You know, it's not necessarily good for the sport."

Last year Johnson won at Las Vegas with a roof that was deemed too low and Knaus received a two-race suspension, which was later overturned. When Johnson won at Dover he did so with shock absorbers that were technically legal, but NASCAR changed its rules the following week. Knaus' violation in Daytona qualifying was having an illegal rear window on the car to help its aerodynamics.

"I kind of view it as jealousy, and he doesn't have a crew chief in there working hard enough to make his cars as good," Johnson said after being told of Newman's comments. "This team has worked way too hard to even have those kind of comments thrown at them, and I'm going to be very defensive over it. I'm disappointed that Ryan has to make some different statements and try to tarnish what we accomplished."

Casey Mears, who finished second in the Daytona 500, didn't have a problem with Johnson's win.

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

Knaus remains suspended. NASCAR has not yet announced the length of the suspension or if there will be any further penalties, such as a loss of points. Johnson said last Wednesday that the team would be without Knaus for "a couple of weeks."

"We understand that we made a mistake and we're facing that, we're living with that," Johnson said. "We want to celebrate this win. These guys have worked so hard for it. We just want the respect that comes along with winning the Daytona 500."


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