FONTANA, Calif. – Jimmie Johnson insists his car was perfectly legal at the Daytona 500, and he believes NASCAR’s chief appellate officer proved it this week by rescinding most of the penalties levied against crew chief Chad Knaus.

“Through the appeal process, we’ve proved that those C-posts were legal,” the five-time champion driver said Friday.

The NASCAR president, Mike Helton, reached the opposite conclusion from the same process, and he points to Knaus’ $100,000 fine left intact by chief appellate officer John Middlebrook as evidence.

“That tells you that the inspection process was correct and there was an issue with the car,” Helton said.

No wonder much of the garage at Auto Club Speedway is surprised and confused as they get back to work this weekend in Johnson’s native Southern California.

At least Johnson and Helton both feel it’s time to move on from the debate that could have ruined Johnson’s season shortly after it began.

“I guess this is one of those positions where we agree to disagree,” Johnson said.

Helton staunchly defended Middlebrook against criticism of Tuesday’s surprising ruling, rejecting presumptions of a bias toward Hendrick Motorsports. Helton also defended the autocratic nature of Middlebrook’s job, which doesn’t require him to give any rationale for his decisions.

“We believe the decision that was made this week supports the inspection process,” Helton said. “Because the elements of the penalty that were upheld indicate that the inspectors did their job correctly.”

Knaus was fined and suspended for six races along with car chief Ron Malec, and Johnson was docked 25 points after the No. 48 car failed the opening-day inspection at Daytona. The inspectors visually determined the sheet metal between the roof and side windows had been illegally modified to create an aerodynamic advantage.

After a three-member panel unanimously upheld NASCAR’s penalties, nobody thought Johnson and the oft-scrutinized Knaus had much of a chance to successfully appeal that heavy punishment. Instead, Middlebrook put Knaus and Malec on probation through May 9 and restored Johnson’s points — yet inexplicably kept that six-figure fine intact.

“I don’t feel vindicated because I feel like everything should have been overturned,” Johnson said. “Pleased that things went our way but don’t feel vindicated.”

Helton made only a token effort to avoid saying he was surprised by Middlebrook’s ruling.

“I’ll keep my personal reaction to myself because I’m the only one that will ever know it,” Helton said. “But I got through that in about 30 seconds to go on to the fact that we did what we felt was correct. Our inspectors did their job. We collectively made a decision on how to react to it, and the car owner has a due process that they can follow. That due process completes it all. We’ll go on down the road.” 

QUALIFYING: Denny Hamlin won the pole at Auto Club Speedway, with teammate Kyle Busch joining him in the top two spots for Sunday’s race.

Hamlin turned a lap of 186.403 mph in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota during Friday’s qualifying session, running low on the track while most drivers went high.

Busch was followed by Mark Martin in a Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing.

Hamlin earned his 10th career pole and his first top-10 start this season, along with qualification for next year’s Shootout at Daytona.

Sprint Cup points leader Greg Biffle was fourth in his Roush Fenway Racing Ford, and Kasey Kahne was an encouraging fifth in his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet after a rough start to the season.