Points Leaders To Start From Back of the Pack

SONOMA, Calif. (AP) -- Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon wasted no time returning to the track after NASCAR inspectors approved their cars.

Johnson, the reigning Nextel Cup champion, and Gordon, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate and four-time series champion, were the first cars on the 1.99-mile Infineon Raceway road course for practice Saturday.

The two had an unexpected day off Friday after their cars failed to pass inspection. NASCAR deemed the front fenders on the No. 24 and No. 48 Chevrolets illegal and banned the two drivers from the day's practice and qualifying.

NASCAR did, however, allow the teams to alter the fenders and send the cars back through inspection. Both teams did that Friday, but waited until Saturday morning for official approval.

``Everything is fine,'' said Doug Duchardt, vice president of development for Hendrick. ``We're way behind, but we'll just go out there and prepare today the way we would on any Saturday and hope for the best.''

Johnson and Gordon will start 41st and 42nd in the 43-car lineup for Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350.

In the morning practice, with cooler track temperatures and fast speeds, Gordon was third fastest and Johnson 16th. In the afternoon, Johnson was ninth and Gordon, who spun harmlessly at one point, wound up 10th.

Gordon, a five-time winner and the defending champion at Sonoma, said it's going to be tough to try to drive to the front on the treacherous road circuit that winds through the hills of Northern California wine country.

Making it even more difficult is the fact that this is the road racing debut of NASCAR's new Car of Tomorrow, a virtually unknown quantity on this kind of track.

``We're really put into a bind here and we're going to do our best, that's all I can say,'' said Gordon, the series points leader. ``You know we're going to do all we can to make the car as fast as it can be and to try to come up through that field the best way, smoothest way possible while trying to stay out of trouble and trying to play the right pit strategy.

``We'll try to do everything in our power to get the best finish out here we can. I'll be honest, right now it's a little hard for us to be realistic about a win. It's more about being realistic about trying to get a top 10.''

Johnson said the key is to concentrate and not get too upset about the track time he and Gordon lost.

``We can't get that back,'' he said. ``We just have to make sure that when we do get on the racetrack that our heads are in the right spots, we're focused on the right things and we do the best job that we can.''

The team, particularly crew chiefs Chad Knaus (Johnson) and Steve Letarte (Gordon) could face further penalties from NASCAR after officials return home Monday.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was docked 100 points and crew chief Tony Eury Jr. was fined $100,000 and suspended six races after NASCAR discovered illegal brackets on the rear wing of the No. 8 COT Chevrolet last month at Darlington Raceway.

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