HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Chad Knaus was clearly distracted as he leaned against a cart during a casual conversation before last week’s race in Phoenix. His eyes darted around, finally settling on an aerosol can and a box of towels.
“Move,” he ordered, just as he began spraying cleaner across the top of the nylon cover on the tool cart. He wiped away the offensive dust and dirt, rolled the towels into a ball and fired them into a nearby trash can.
“So, I was saying,” he started.
Yeah, sure he’s mellowed out.
Knaus, the most intense crew chief in NASCAR, is one step from guiding driver Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team to a record fourth consecutive Cup championship.
He’s meticulous, relentless and maybe even a bit obsessive.
And that’s the improved version.
Those close to Knaus insist he’s matured tremendously during Johnson’s reign, evolving from a maniacal taskmaster who came close to being removed as Johnson’s crew chief to an effective communicator and motivator of the best team in NASCAR. Johnson will wrap up the Sprint Cup title in Sunday’s finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway with a finish of 25th or better.
“The one thing he has always possessed is the fire, the will and the determination to win,” boss Rick Hendrick said of Knaus. “He’s willing to dedicate everything he has to be successful, and he really, truly leaves no rock unturned. But I think the thing he’s learned is that not everybody can run at that pace, and I don’t think that Chad could have continued at his pace from three, four, five years ago because you burn out.”
Knaus was certainly headed in that direction at the end of 2005, when he and Johnson fell short of a championship for a second consecutive season. He’d had Johnson in contention every year since their 2002 debut, but their best opportunities came in the first two years of the Chase for the Championship.
When they came up empty – Johnson fell eight points short in 2004, and blew a tire in the 2005 finale to fall out of contention – Knaus knew no way of handling the defeat other than to work more and push his team harder. His methods had driven a wedge into his relationship with Johnson, and Hendrick intended to split the two during the infamous “milk and cookies” sitdown.
Because they’d been behaving like children, Hendrick served them what he felt was an appropriate snack. Point made, Knaus and Johnson aired their issues and resolved to repair their relationship.
But doing so meant Knaus would have to put some balance into his life. Johnson, the laid-back Californian, urged the type-A Knaus to chill out once in a while and enjoy life.
On his own since he was a teenager, Knaus had clawed his way from a mechanic working on his father’s race car to the opportunity to build a team from scratch for NASCAR’s most successful team owner. That path had instilled a take-no-prisoners work ethic in Knaus, but little else to show for his efforts.
“I really dedicated everything I had to (2005) to try to win the championship, and we came up short, and Mr. Hendrick and Jimmie showed me at the end of that season, ‘Look, you can’t do this. You can’t do it at the level that you’re trying to do it,’ ” Knaus said. “It wasn’t the level of success, it was the level of intensity, because … I was losing that edge that I had, and I was beginning to flame out.”
So Knaus began to pick up outside interests – travel, scuba diving and yoga, to name a few – and occasionally takes time off to unwind. Added up, he probably takes off no more than two weeks a year. But it’s a start.
“I’m enjoying things, I’m going places, and I owe all that to Jimmie,” he said. “I had never had a vacation until 2002 when Jimmie and I went to Cabo San Lucas together, and it was like, ‘Man, there’s something else to do other than racing.’
“Still, to this day, I don’t do as much stuff as what I would like. But I definitely take time off and enjoy myself.”
It’s not always smooth sailing, though, as Knaus is still determined to win every race by crushing the field. That nonstop push can be grating, particularly to Johnson when he’s inside the race car and Knaus is asking for more. It happened at Charlotte (N.C.) in October, when Johnson threatened to strangle Knaus over their team radio during a midrace dispute.
“When he is on the box and he’s frustrated that the car is not going anywhere, and he thinks that I’m sitting on some speed and I can just magically make the car go a little faster, those are the things that frustrate me,” Johnson said. “I am learning how to handle him more and more each year that goes by. The fact that we’re so different really helps. If we both had similar personalities, I think we really would kill one another.
“I’m pretty patient. He’s not so patient. And in more instances I find that … patience really prevails.”
The theory proved true two races ago at Texas when Johnson was wrecked three laps into the race. Knaus angrily slammed his fist on top of the pit box, took a deep breath, then spent the next 90 minutes calmly instructing his crew during a total rebuild of the car. It was controlled chaos, but it got Johnson back on track and proved why the No. 48 team is the best in the business.
Then Knaus set a plan to bounce back in commanding fashion at Phoenix, pushing his team to a dominating win last Sunday that put Johnson back in control of the standings.
“He still has that very unreal goal of perfect, but that’s OK because when he can’t get there, instead of just going all to pieces, he starts working toward fixing it,” Hendrick said. “He can handle failure better now. That’s been the big difference of where he was and where he is now.”
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