Hendrick says Gordon, Johnson have been punished enough

SONOMA, Calif. -- Rick Hendrick can't seem to stay out of the news these days.

Last week it was for signing NASCAR's most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., to replace Kyle Busch in his Nextel Cup stable that also includes Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Casey Mears.

This week it was because the cars of Gordon and Johnson were banned from all on-track activities on Friday when their cars failed initial inspection at Infineon Raceway.

Next week it'll be about the penalties, expected to be heavy, levied against Gordon and Johnson.

"Well, I'm trying to [stay out of the news]," Hendrick said between practices.

The owner of NASCAR's dominant team in 2007 doesn't believe he deserves to be making big headlines this weekend. He almost defiantly said whatever punishment the governing body issues will be too much.

"I don't necessarily say they bent the rules," Hendrick said after a lengthy team meeting inside of Jeff Gordon's hauler. "They thought they were working inside of an area they thought they could. The fenders on the car are sitting out there in front of God and everybody.

"If you're going to try to do something to gain an advantage you wouldn't do it and roll it through inspection."

NASCAR officials said the front right fenders on both cars were flared out beyond the wheel well to create an advantage. Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition, called it a blatant attempt to circumvent the rules.

Based on what happened to crew chief Tony Eury Jr. and driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. when NASCAR discovered alterations to the rear-wing bracket at Darlington, the ensuing penalty will be substantial.

Eury was suspended for six races and fined $100,000, and Earnhardt was docked 100 championship points.

Hendrick, anticipating that or worse, already is pleading his case to NASCAR.

"We'll have to see what the penalty is, but I don't think the penalty fits the crime in this case when you're talking about the top of a fender or the side of a fender," he said.

"I don't see it as a situation where you had a certified part and it's been altered or anything like that."

Hendrick said there's no way to make sure all the bodies are the same short of using lasers to measure them.

"I walked through the garage and looked at other cars," he said. "I looked at fenders where they're pushed down and pulled out. It's just going to be tough to do.

"I wish we could stamp the bodies and give us a body that has been stamped and put it on the car and that's it."

Hendrick said Gordon and Johnson already have been punished enough -- they're being forced to start at the rear of the field. The only driver to win at Infineon from the back was Ernie Irvan, who started at the rear after jumping the start in 1992.

We want to play by the rules. I don't enjoy this. The guys don't enjoy this. I'm sure NASCAR doesn't enjoy this.

Rick Hendrick

"We came out here to try to win this race," Hendrick said. "Now we're trying to survive this race."

Hendrick, whose organization has won 10 of the first 15 races, says he knows how tough it is to pass on the 1.99-mile road course and that cars in the back will be a quarter of a mile behind at the outset.

"This is a big penalty not being able to qualify and get a good starting spot and good pit spot," he said. "We're just hoping for a good finish. If these two cars finish in the top 10 tomorrow I'll be happy."

If any two drivers can rebound it is Gordon and Johnson. Gordon was third fastest in Saturday's first practice and was in the top 10 during the second before brushing the wall. He's also a five-time winner here with nine top-three finishes.

Johnson finished fifth here in 2004 after starting 35th. He was 16th fastest in the first practice and consistently in the top 10 in the second.

Both drivers also can afford a heavy hit from NASCAR. Gordon, who became a first-time father on Wednesday, leads the points standings by 264 over second-place Denny Hamlin.

Johnson, the defending Cup champion, is third -- 337 points behind Gordon. He is 11 points ahead of fourth-place Matt Kenseth and 136 ahead of Jeff Burton in fifth.

Hendrick doesn't believe either should have to suffer further. But his main concern is making sure something like this doesn't happen during the final 10 races when the title is on the line.

"You're definitely going to make sure you show up with these things measured up," he said. "We want to play by the rules. I don't enjoy this. The guys don't enjoy this. I'm sure NASCAR doesn't enjoy this.

"If we went too far, hey, we've been penalized now and we'll move on."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.