Knaus vs. NASCAR a suspenseful game

10/16/2009 - NASCAR

Talk about suspense and high drama: This Chase is sure to be a white-knuckler down to the wire -- and I don't mean on the tracks.

I mean in places you can't see from the grandstands, places TV cameras can't go: the inspection stations deep in the garages, and NASCAR police headquarters, aka the "R&D center."

The overwhelming reason Jimmie Johnson's four-peat championship onslaught seems unstoppable is his crew chief, Chad Knaus.

And nobody can stop Knaus or even slow him down, this Energizer Bunny with the high IQ, and the twin afflictions of workaholism and thinkaholism.

Nobody except the NASCAR technical enforcers. They could slow him down. Or stop him cold.

So this is all about one man running all out, all the time, on the ragged edge of disaster -- The Fugitive, with Lieutenant Gerard and a posse hot on his tail.

"Look," Knaus said to me the other day, while his third car in three weeks was sitting down at NASCAR R&D, undergoing yet another going-over. "If they want to get us in trouble, they can get us in trouble, at any point in time."

You could almost hear him shrugging on the phone: "It's just the way it is."

So cool -- dry ice. Like one of those World Series of Poker players going all in with a million chips.

"No," and then "No," and then "No," he answered my first barrage of questions about how stressful and yet how exhilarating this must be ... running on the ragged edge, down to the thousandth of an inch of tolerance in the technical rules ... because you have to, if you want to win like Knaus does ... yet knowing NASCAR could nail you any time with a disastrous penalty for an excess that can't even be seen with the human eye.

Then finally, "I can't say I don't worry about it," he said. "Of course I worry about it. The last thing I want is to put any time of bad light on our race team or put ourselves in a position we can't overcome."

Knaus Look. If they want to get us in trouble, they can get us in trouble, at any point in time. It's just the way it is.

-- Chad Knaus

The 48 team would be hard-pressed to overcome a six-week suspension of its head coach, Knaus, with but six races remaining in the Chase, and a docking of 100 championship points -- i. e., the penalty package the team got the last time NASCAR nailed Knaus, in 2007.

And that was in midseason, not nearly as critical as now, in mid-playoffs.

As for the "bad light," there is the "cheater" label Knaus detractors stick on him from time to time, especially when the 48 team is blowing the competition away.

Knaus's rap sheet down at headquarters reads like this: six career incidences of penalties, four of those for technical violations, for a total of 125 championship points lost, $172,500 in fines and 12 weeks of hard time, NASCAR-style -- suspensions.

"So I worry about it all the time."

So does Johnson, who can see behind Knaus's poker face.

"It doesn't matter if it's Chad or if it's a guy on Joe Nemechek's car [a shoestring-budget start-and-parker]," Johnson said. "The tolerances are so tight that everybody's nervous. We've heard for years about the stress levels that [crew chiefs] carry.

"It's a nerve-wracking experience."

John Darby, officially the Sprint Cup Series director, is NASCAR's de facto chief of police -- and talk about a street-savvy cop.

The close inspections mean that "Every crew chief in this Chase is every bit on the edge of his seat as the driver is on the last lap coming off Turn 4," Darby said. "And they have to be. If the driver hits the wall, he's going to lose X amount of points and maybe jeopardize the championship.

"If a crew chief goes too far, in his world, it's the same thing as hitting the wall. He could lose points that could ultimately cost him a championship.

"So it's a high-tension time of year, no doubt."

Once upon a time, it was a glorious cat-and-mouse game, this catch-me-if-you-can business between the tech wizards on the teams and the NASCAR inspectors.

But, "I think Chad was neutered years ago, with the issues that took place, in that cat-and-mouse game," Johnson said. "Whatever you name it, he doesn't want to play."

At least not the prima facie cheating, such as his aerodynamically -- hrrummph -- enhanced rear window for Daytona 500 qualifying in 2006. That one got him escorted from the grounds on the spot, and suspended for the rest of SpeedWeeks and three additional race weekends.

But about pushing the limits of the rules, Knaus always has said after every penalty that he won't back off, and he never has, and even under the relentless microscopic scrutiny of the NASCAR cops now, he won't.

He can't.

Not if Jimmie Johnson is to keep on checking out on the competition.

The old rule of thumb of Junior Johnson, the all-time maestro of pushing the rules to and beyond the limits, still applies: Show me a car that's completely legal, and I'll show you a car that's running in the back.

So, the NASCAR cops are a lot like the ref on a football field who can throw a flag for holding just about anytime he wants.

"They can get any race car out there in trouble at any point in time," Knaus said. "Every team out there has some things they're trying to get an advantage with. We can't even say what that is. Who knows?

"It could be from an engine standpoint, it could be from a drive-train standpoint, it could be from an aerodynamic standpoint. You don't know."

Whatever it is, "If you're going for that last five one-thousandths of an inch," Darby said, "don't make it six. Make it four."

Here's why Knaus must do what he must do, all out, all the time, one one-thousandth of an inch from disaster: "Every team out there is trying to do something to be faster than the next," Knaus said. "If they're not, they're not running competitively. I can promise you that.

"And if the crew chief is not trying to push something to make his car faster, then he's not doing his job and he's not living up to his responsibility."

"The ironic part of our business," Darby said, "is that most of the crew chiefs I have ever written a penalty to are also the crew chiefs that I probably have the most respect for. Because they're working that hard.

"The sad part," Darby continued, "is when a crew chief maybe gets mislabeled [as a cheater] because he is working that hard. Chad Knaus is a perfect example."

Knaus maintained there's no side of him that secretly loves the high suspense of it all, and Junior Johnson, the old maestro, corroborated that.

"I hated that part of it," Johnson said. "You work yourself to death trying to reach the ultimate on where the rule will go, and it turns out to be [NASCAR's] decision, one way or the other, right or wrong."

Here, the epilogue of the story quickly morphs back into prologue: Knaus's third car in three weeks was cleared at NASCAR police headquarters Wednesday, with no issues.

But as the 48 car keeps on flying, the teardowns and inspections are sure to be relentless. Anytime you finish in the top five, your car goes through detailed inspection. Win, and it's taken to headquarters for the finer details.

And, while it surely appears the 48 team has hit full stride as usual, a target moving rapidly away from the competition, "We're not right yet," Knaus said. "We're getting closer, but we've got a lot of areas that we need to improve upon.

"I think our cars need to get just a little bit faster. There's some stuff we need to do to try to get a little bit more speed out of our cars, a little bit more consistently."

As he works, Knaus knows NASCAR's tolerances are far less than a little bit -- they're miniscule.

"In the case of the 48 and the 5," Darby said, also referring to the car of Jimmie Johnson's teammate Mark Martin, second in the Chase standings, "we're going to continue to watch them pretty closely for a few more weeks, just to make sure we're staying on the same page."

Translation: Right down to the checkered flag of the season finale at Homestead-Miami, and even afterward, the tingling suspense, the high drama, will not let up.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.