KANSAS CITY, Kan. —Mark Martin and Jimmie Johnson used a pair of wins to race their way to the top of the Sprint Cup standings.
Fair and square. No cheating involved.
Even so, tongues were wagging Friday at Kansas Speedway after NASCAR warned the two Hendrick Motorsports teams they came awfully close to failing post-race inspection at Dover.
"There was no room to breathe," Sprint Cup director John Darby said. "Both cars passed inspection, or we would be having a whole different conversation with this."
Johnson led Martin to a 1-2 finish on Sunday, and their Chevrolets were taken back to NASCAR's research and development center in North Carolina for further inspection. Johnson's car was taken as the race winner, while Martin's represented the random selection.
During the inspection, NASCAR found that the body of the cars came very close to exceeding allowed specifications. Hendrick officials were called in the next day to go over the measurements and NASCAR let the teams go with a warning:
"Don't put it so close that your head's in the guillotine and somebody is holding a lighter on the rope," Darby said.
Martin won his career-best seventh pole of the season, while Johnson qualified 11th for Sunday's race.
But the two Hendrick Motorsports teams are on the defense at Kansas, where rival teams openly wondered if Martin and Johnson were given an unfair pass by NASCAR so their championship chances would not be disrupted. Martin, winner of the Chase opener at New Hampshire, holds a 10-point advantage in the standings over Johnson, the three-time defending champion.
"If we were cheating, I wouldn't be standing here today, I'd be back in Charlotte," said Johnson crew chief Chad Knaus. "The cars were legal. That's the thing everybody has to understand. It's turned into a bigger issue than what it really should."
Martin crew chief Alan Gustafson argued that as a five-time winner this season, his cars have been scrutinized more than anybody else in the series. Gustafson said the car has gone back to the R&D center after all five of its wins, and again last week.
"That's our sixth car through there this season, so it's not like they don't know what our stuff looks like," Gustafson said. "So how can you say that? My car has been over there more times than anyone else in the series. There's some teams in the top 10 who have not won, so I am not sure they have ever been through the process."
But history often creates a perception, particularly when it comes to Knaus. Considered one of the most innovative minds in the garage, he's crossed NASCAR's line 10 times in his career as a crew chief and wracked up $199,750 in fines.
His track record helped fuel the gossip Friday. What started as Gustafson claiming the car was 70-thousandths of an inch within the allowed measurements, other teams privately griped the cars actually were over the limits.
"It doesn't take long for the rumor millls to start transferring the word that the car was 17 feet off," Darby said. "That's why the measurements have grown so quickly. Every conversation the measurement gets bigger and bigger."