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Knaus raises his game as Chase stakes soar to new heights

11/9/2007 - NASCAR

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Chad Knaus was embarrassingly apologetic after finally getting through for a scheduled phone call earlier this week.

"I got confused," the crew chief for Nextel Cup points leader Jimmie Johnson said. "I was sent three phone numbers and a bunch of times to call, and I got the last two phone numbers mixed up on the times."

That's about all Knaus gets wrong these days.

The 36-year-old native of Rockford, Ill. has been on top of his game the past month better than anybody in sports outside of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.

His decision to take two tires instead of four on the final pit stop at Atlanta turned a top-five finish into a win. Last week at Texas he gambled with a late four-tire stop that put Johnson in position to collect his third straight win.

The run has enabled Johnson to turn a 68-point deficit to Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon into a 30-point lead heading into Sunday's race at Phoenix International Raceway.

"We're real fortunate right now, that's for sure," Knaus said.

Good fortune has nothing to do with it. Knaus and Johnson have been doing this since they were paired for their first Cup season in 2002.

They have won a series-high 32 races, including nine this season. They have collected at least 20 top-10s each year and finished no worse than fifth in the championship standings, capped by last season's championship.

Johnson gets most of the credit as drivers usually do. But Knaus, rightfully so, gets his share of the credit as well.

Most in the garage agree that if he's not the best crew chief, he's certainly among the top two.

"There's no question he's the best," said team owner Ray Evernham, who was the crew chief for Gordon when Knaus came to HMS as a fabricator in 1993. "His record speaks for itself.

"That's one good thing about being in that position. When you're the best at a certain time or certain era you don't have to say that. You don't have to think it. In black and white, Chad is by far the best in the garage area. You can't argue it because it's in the numbers."

Evernham knows. He was considered the best when he helped Gordon win three championships in the '90s.

"Chad wants to be the best in the business," Evernham said. "I can remember him sitting there and telling me I want to be sitting where you're sitting. He was purely focused as the No. 1 goal in his life to get where he's at.

"You've got to really applaud him for having that kind of commitment. No matter what anybody says, it takes a ton of sacrifice to be that good at this level. And he has sacrificed and kept that commitment."

Robbie Loomis, who was the crew chief for Gordon when Knaus began his second stint at HMS, agreed.

"His work ethic is second to none," said Loomis, now the vice president of race operations at Petty Enterprises. "Unless you worked with him it's hard to make this statement, but from what I've seen there's not a crew chief that works at it as hard as he works at it."

Knaus appreciates the compliments, but he's not comfortable with being called the best -- yet.

"I've got the best team in the garage, and that's the crew chief's job to make it look like that," he said. "There are a lot of guys on my team that are a heck of a lot smarter than I am and feed me information and we work well together and we make good decisions.

"But I don't think I'm the best crew chief in the garage by any stretch of the imagination. There's a lot of guys smarter than I am."

Born to be a crew chief
John Knaus once would work 10-hour days as a body shop technician in Rockford and then put in another four or more hours with his Late Model race cars at home.

There was only one person he couldn't outwork: His son, who at 14 was his crew chief, preparing the cars to compete against Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace and Alan Kulwicki at Rockford Speedway.

"I always ran pretty good," the elder Knaus said several years ago. "But until Chad began as my crew chief, I never won a championship. Once he began working on the car, we won four in a row."

Most crew chiefs will tell you their childhood dream was to be a driver. Knaus is no different.

But because his dad was the driver, and because he "wrecked a bunch of stuff" when given the opportunity to drive, he decided his focus was best served under the hood.

"It's something that came really easy to me and was something I could really focus on and enjoy it," Knaus said. "Plus, I was probably a little bit of -- I don't want to say a loner -- but I liked doing things by myself."

Knaus still gets his taste of racing, whether it's motorcycles or behind the wheel of a Thunder Roadster as was the case during the inaugural crew chief challenge at Lowe's Motor Speedway during All-Star weekend.

Fortunately for Knaus, he shows more patience in calling a race than he did running one.

"Wellllll," he said of the challenge. "It was a short race. I do enjoy it though. Obviously, I would be a helluva lot richer if I was successful at that. But I get a lot of gratification in what I do now. I really, really do.

"I remember when I was young watching these crew chiefs on television, thinking, 'I can't wait to be Dale Earnhardt's crew chief or Rusty Wallace's crew chief.' It's exciting. I've got a lot of responsibility, a lot of great, great guys that work for me. I wouldn't change it for the world."

Second time around
Knaus doesn't think of victories or championships when asked for defining moments in his career. He thinks of sleeping on a friend's couch when he didn't have enough money to rent his own place and living in apartments that had no furniture.

He thinks of his early days at Hendrick Motorsports when it was his goal to wear the polo shirts management got instead of plain work shirts.

"It really makes me appreciate what I've got now," he said.

Knaus left home right out of high school and headed to North Carolina to be closer to the heart of NASCAR. He landed a job with Stanley Smith's stock car team, which less than two years later led to his first job at HMS working Evernham on Gordon's upstart team.

He went from fabricator to managing the chassis and body construction program in four years. He also served as a tire changer on the original Rainbow Warriors pit crew, helping the driver he's trying to beat this year win titles in 1995 and 1997.

"I learned a lot about dedication working with guys like Ray and Brian Whitesell," Knaus said. "They were very, very dedicated people. It wasn't a situation where you do things halfway. You either did it one-hundred percent, bought into it, or you didn't do it at all.

"It's so difficult to instill that into somebody, but I actually enjoyed going in with that type of mentality that you're going to be successful, and you're going to be successful because you're doing it the right way."

But Knaus wanted to be a crew chief, and there were too many people with far more experience for that to happen fast enough at HMS. So he left after the 1997 season to serve as the car chief for Steve Park and later Michael Waltrip at Dale Earnhardt Inc.

In 1998, he moved to Tyler Jet Motorsports, arguably the toughest period of his career.

"I needed to get out, spread my wings a little bit and learn how to be a crew chief so when the opportunity arose for me to come back to Hendrick Motorsports I would have [the experience]," Knaus said. "When I left that was the understanding between Rick Hendrick and myself, that if I was ever able to go out there and prove myself then I was going to get the opportunity."

Late in 2001, after a stint with Melling Racing that reunited him with Evernham and Dodge's Development team, Knaus was offered the opportunity to work with Johnson.

"If he hadn't left nobody would have ever taken him seriously," Evernham said. "We always would have looked at him as Chad the fabricator on the 24 car."

Knaus wouldn't do things differently.

"A lot of crew chiefs that come into our industry now, they see the big cars and big shops and hundreds of people working in there 40 hours as week. I'm not going to say they're not going to be successful, but they're almost a little spoiled.

"What we went through in the Tyler Jet days, what we went through in the early days of the 24 car when we had only 14 full-time employees, those days were invaluable. I learned a lot about cars, about people and determination."

Late riser?
Knaus didn't arrive at HMS until noon on Monday. He figured after a flight that arrived in Charlotte at 2 a.m. he deserved a few more hours of rest and time to savor the victory.

Such thoughts never would have entered his mind two years ago. He would have been up at 5:30 a.m. and back at the shop at 6:30 looking for ways to outsmart the competition, particularly with a title on the line.

I remember when I was young, watching these crew chiefs on television, thinking, 'I can't wait to be Dale Earnhardt's crew chief or Rusty Wallace's crew chief.' It's exciting. I've got a lot of responsibility, a lot of great, great guys that work for me. I wouldn't change it for the world.

-- Chad Knaus

"Probably," Knaus admitted. "But I'm not going to lie. I was awake at 6 and tossing and turning and looking at the clock and thinking."

But he didn't. He spent quality time with his girlfriend, Bruna Oliveira, and two Shi Tzu dogs first.

Ron Malec, Johnson's car chief, appreciates the new Knaus.

"Before he'd be trying to figure out a bigger, better way to do something," he said. "Now he has confidence in the people we have and feels he doesn't have to always overthink things.

"That got us in trouble a lot of times in the past when he started overthinking things or working too much to get something you really can't achieve this time of the season."

This revelation came about when Knaus was suspended the first four races of last season after NASCAR officials discovered an illegal device in the rear window of Johnson's car following qualifying for the Daytona 500.

Johnson won the 500 and two weeks later at Las Vegas. He was second and sixth in the other two events with interim crew chief Darian Grubb.

Knaus realized then that Johnson and others around him were capable of succeeding without his hovering over them every minute. He realized it's OK to occasionally come in a few hours late or even take a day off.

"Jimmie has probably been the biggest influence of making me understand that a little time away goes a long way," Knaus said.

Knaus also realized that he didn't have to push gray quite so hard. He hopes the perception that he "cheats" is behind him.

"That's a silly term," Knaus said. "The people that use the term cheating really don't understand racing. It's not cheating when you're out to find an advantage.

"There's a set of rules we have to work within. If you can find a loophole within those rules, that's fair game. The way NASCAR views things is sometimes different than what the competitors view it and that's when you see people get in trouble."

Malec said Knaus is 100 percent more relaxed now than two years ago.

"What happened at the beginning of last year was a big step towards what we have now," he said. "That was a big help to us winning the championship. He's stepped back and let the engineers do more of their jobs, help with the decisions during a race."

"We all talk about the setups now. We make pretty logical decisions and understand the show is on the track."

Pefect chemistry
Johnson was waiting for the restart after his final pit stop at Texas when Knaus came over the radio and said, "Man, ready to pull out your cape?"

A few weeks earlier, when Johnson commented that Gordon had a fast car, Knaus replied, "Yeah, but we have the best driver."

The two work together like a great quarterback-wide receiver combination. They seemingly always have.

"We hit it off pretty solid right away in 2002," Knaus said. "We knew this was an opportunity for us to make something of our careers, that we may not get a second shot at.

"So when we went into the 2002 season we said, 'OK, you're my guy and I'm your guy. We have to make this work. It's not going to be one of those situations where the crew chief says the driver can't drive or the driver says I've got crew chief that can't help get me done.' "

It didn't take the rest of the garage long to realize what Knaus and Johnson were going to be a top team. They won three races and had 21 top-10s in 2002 and finished fifth in the standings.

They were leading in points until a blown engine at Talladega with seven races remaining.

"They work very well together," Malec said. "They really understand each other as far as how the car goes. But last year still was the turning point for Chad, realizing a lot of the input from Jimmie and the rest of the team is important."

One day, many years from now, Knaus would like for people to look at him and Johnson as the best in the history of the sport.

But right now he's focused solely on being the best this season. He won't even discuss whether it's tougher to repeat as champion than winning the first title.

"I don't know," Knaus said. "You'll come have to ask me that after next week in Miami if we win it."

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