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 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 Sunday, and their Chevrolets were taken 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 bodies of the cars came 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 during qualifying Friday, 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," Johnson crew chief Chad Knaus said. "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 put under heavy scrutiny. Gustafson said the No. 5 has gone 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 were over the limits.
"It doesn't take long for the rumor mills 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."
Brian Vickers, a former Hendrick driver ranked 10th in the Chase for his Red Bull Racing team, credited his former teammates for successfully pushing the limits.
"NASCAR gives us a box, you're supposed to use every bit of it. If you don't, shame on you," he said. "Hendrick is as good or better than anybody at using every bit of that box, pushing every component to the limit of what they're allowed to do.
"Good for them. I wish that was us. When we go through inspection, we should have everything maxed to every limit without going over. That's the job of ingenuity as a crew chief and a team in the sport."
Johnson, seeking a record fourth consecutive title, hoped the hullabaloo distracts the competition as he attempts to defend his victory last year at Kansas on Sunday.
"I hope that people are concerned and focused on non-issues, which this deal is. It's a non-issue," he said. "(It) gives everybody something to write and talk about, and (I) hope it will be swirling around in the competitors' heads."