Jimmie Johnson might have become the first driver in NASCAR history to win four consecutive Cup championships when he finished fifth in Sunday’s Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, which was won by Denny Hamlin, but he sure didn’t do it alone.
His crew chief, Chad Knaus, has also got to get much of the credit. Maybe not equal credit but a whole lot of it just the same.
For the uninitiated, the crew chief is the guy in charge of the race team. He reports to the team manager, but the crew chief is pretty much the main man. During the race, he makes the calls for chassis adjustments to the car, fuel and tire stops and overall race strategy.
Yes, the driver – Johnson, in this case – actually has to race the car and to put up with the rock ‘n’ roll out on the track. But the direction of the effort is at the discretion of the crew chief – in this case, Knaus – and the team’s success or failure is very often directly attributable to his decisions and actions.
Knaus – like most people involved in racing – was drawn to the sport by his father John, who once upon a time was a dirt-track racer of note in the U.S. Midwest. Papa John was seven-time modified champion at Rockford Speedway, in Rockford, Ill., where Chad Knaus was born.
When Chad turned 14 (he's 38 now), he became his father’s crew chief and other championships – the NASCAR Great North Series, for example – followed.
An ambitious kid, Knaus "went south" after graduating from high school to try to find work in the big leagues. It didn’t happen right away – he had to go to Alabama to get a paid racing job – but, in 1993, a whole bunch of things came together to start him down the road to where he is today.
The first was that Rick Hendrick – who’d been involved in Cup racing since 1984 – expanded his team to make room for Jeff Gordon, a young sprint car driver who’d turned heads while driving stock cars in the Busch Series. The second was that Hendrick hired a young crew chief named Ray Evernham to run Gordon’s operation. The third was that a young Chad Knaus applied for a job with the new team and Evernham liked what he heard.
"He told me that one day he wanted my job," Evernham once told a reporter, "and I like guys who talk like that."
They worked together for four years but Knaus was a young guy in a hurry to be a crew chief so he left the Hendrick operation and went off to run teams for – among others – Steve Park, Darrell Waltrip and Stacey Compton.
Evernham kept his eye on Knaus, though, and in 2003 – when Hendrick and Gordon decided, as partners, to enter a car in the Cup series for a rookie named Jimmie Johnson – he suggested that Hendrick get in touch with Knaus.
The rest, as they say, is history. Johnson and Knaus have been a team since and, beginning in 2006, unbeatable.
There have been some dark moments, however. In a sport in which cheating is rampant, Knaus has been caught and suspended twice for breaking rules.
The first time was at the Daytona 500 in 2006 when Johnson’s car was deemed illegal following time trials because Knaus had rigged the rear window so that when the driver was travelling at full speed ahead it went up, putting more air over the spoiler. When the driver slowed down, the window dropped back into position.
NASCAR fined Knaus $25,000 and sent him home for four races. Johnson won the Daytona 500 anyway.
In 2007, the shape of the fenders on Johnson’s new Car of Tomorrow were found to be not quite right and Knaus was fined $100,000 and suspended for six races.
Both times, Knaus took the suspensions in stride and justified them to reporter Steven Cole Smith, writing for Dick Berggren’s Speedway Illustrated, this way:
"We’re always trying to get a leg up – that’s our job. What’s what we do. NASCAR’s job is trying to maintain a level playing field. It’s tough, you know. We have to make sure we don’t take the element of creativity out of our sport because we don’t want an IROC race. . .
"My desire to win will never go away. As long as you have that desire, you’re going to have those creative juices flowing. Man, if I ever lose that, I’ll quit. . . If you’re not out there looking for an advantage, you’re not going to have the desire to win."
After reading that, I think it’s safe to assume that Knaus is still looking for loopholes, or other ways to bend the rules. If NASCAR doesn’t catch him, chances are Johnson will win a fifth straight championship because whatever Knaus is doing right (or wrong, depending on how you want to define your terms), it’s putting Johnson head and shoulders above everybody else.
– Hamlin finished first in the race, which was largely uneventful except for the race-long scrap between Juan Pablo Montoya and Tony Stewart. Jeff Burton was second and Kevin Harvick third. Martin, who wound up second in the championship, finished 12th; third-place in the points standings, Jeff Gordon, finished sixth in the race. For a full report, click here.
– The Montoya-Stewart pissing match started in earnest on lap 115 when they banged into each other on the backstretch. Stewart was apparently unhappy that Montoya hit him in the back earlier. Both had to pit for repairs.
Stewart got back onto the speedway fairly quickly but Montoya was out of the race for 27 or 28 laps. When he did return, he promptly ran into Stewart who went into the wall. Montoya was black-flagged at this point and told that if he hit anybody else he’d be out of the race. He behaved himself from then on, as did Stewart, who also eventually got back on track.
– You have to wonder how long it’s going to be before the fans start to boo Johnson. The problem is, he’s too nice a guy to boo.
He’s polite to the fans and the media; he’s a clean racer; he doesn’t retaliate or settle scores; he fulfills all of his contractual duties so far as sponsor commitments are concerned; he’s been married to the same woman for ages. In short, he’s a clean cut, clean living, all-American boy.
– Broadcaster (and former racer) Andy Petree was saying on the telecast before the race that even if he didn’t win, runner-up Mark Martin would go home after the race, reflect on his season, and be "a happy man."
Is he crazy? Maybe that’s why Petree’s a broadcaster and not a racer any more.
I guarantee you that Mark Martin is cheesed right off that he didn’t win because the only reason he’s still racing is to win that championship. Second sucks, Andy, particularly when you’re over 50 and you know there won’t be too many more chances like the one that was handed to you this year.