Commentary

Knaus' white whale? The Daytona 500

Updated: February 9, 2010, 7:22 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Chad Knaus will tell you that watching Jimmie Johnson win the 2006 Daytona 500 was the proudest moment of his career. He will tell you he felt fine sitting on his couch in North Carolina while Johnson was winning and that if he never experiences the thrill of being atop the pit box when his driver takes the checkered flag in the "Great American Race," it won't be a big deal.

Knaus will tell you these things to the point where he gets irritated that you keep asking, because you wonder how a man so competitive and driven can be satisfied with the biggest race of the year missing from his résumé.

He will tell you these things until you start to believe him.

"I'm going to tell you for the last time, it's not that big of a deal," Knaus said after answering the question rephrased a half-dozen ways. "It's a great race. I'd love to win the race. I really would. It would be awesome to have that. If I don't win that race, it's not going to be the end of life.

"I would love to be a part of it, but honestly, I've been a part of it. The 48 team won that race -- and that's me. So I've won it."

Sir, yes sir.

Point taken.

Gotcha.

Then you talk to Johnson, team owner Rick Hendrick and other crewmen for the No. 48. Then you start to understand why you questioned Knaus, who's among the most motivated people in the garage, in the first place.

"He's just protecting himself, I guess," Johnson said of Knaus' response to missing the '06 win. "It would mean the world to him. Yes, he was extremely responsible for that car going to Victory Lane, but he wasn't on the box. He wants to be on the box.

"When I called him after the race from Victory Lane, I could tell he was so happy and proud, but at the same time I've never heard him so dejected and bummed out in my life. That was a tough moment for him."

It was tough on Knaus. He was at home because NASCAR had kicked him out of Daytona International Speedway after discovering a device that raised the rear window of Johnson's Chevrolet to create an aerodynamic advantage.

He was hurt that once again he'd been dubbed a cheater.

He also was proud that the team picked up the slack with him gone and performed at a championship level.

"He wants to be a team player, and he was proud of the team," Hendrick said.

If you think a "but" is coming, there is one. Hendrick went on to remind of what it was like for him to be at home with his niece in the hospital while Johnson wrapped up his fourth straight championship last year at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

"I was where I needed to be, but I wanted to be at Homestead," Hendrick said. "You can't replace that. … [Knaus] wants to lead every practice, win every pole, lead every lap, win every race. And he's got these check marks.

"Daytona is a big one. That hurt him when the car won and he wasn't there. He's determined and fired up, so we'll see."

Let's reflect. On the one hand, we have Knaus crushed that he wasn't on the pit box for Johnson's 500 win. On the other hand, he was as proud as a new father.

It's a contradiction, but totally believable.

"Yeah, it was tough," said Knaus, who won a Daytona 500 as a member of Jeff Gordon's crew. "I'm not going to lie. I shed a tear or two. It's like seeing your kid go and score his first touchdown in football. That's the way it was for me. I was really, really happy to see my guys do that."

Many believe it was a defining moment in Knaus' career, that he formed a trust in those around him that wasn't there before, that he realized his sometimes dictatorial ways weren't always the most productive.

[+] EnlargeChad Knaus & Jimmie Johnson
AP Photo/Mary SchwalmChad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson have won four titles together, but Knaus missed Johnson's Daytona 500 victory celebration.

Four straight titles since might be evidence of that.

"He learned you can't do it all yourself," said Darian Grubb, who replaced Knaus atop the pit box during the '06 suspension while he was the car chief for the 48 team but is now Tony Stewart's crew chief. "Everybody is starting to see that now."

Grubb occasionally teases Knaus about not having a Daytona 500 champion's ring just as he teases his new driver about not having one. But he's the first to say he wouldn't have that ring were it not for Knaus.

"He still put that team together," Grubb said.

He also grew up.

"That helped make Chad, Chad," said Alan Gustafson, Mark Martin's crew chief. "He was able to step back and see by not being there how that team could perform. It was very humbling and very stressful, but when you put it in perspective, he's a better crew chief for it.

"He handled it well. He's gone on to bigger and better things."

That doesn't mean Knaus wants to win the 500 any less now than when he came into the sport. It's like winning one of the majors in golf. You can capture 100 other tournaments, but every time you're introduced as the Masters, British Open, U.S. Open or PGA champion, it's special.

"I'd say it's on the top of his wish list, his bucket list," said Earl Barban, Johnson's spotter and a mechanic for the 48 team.

Knaus won't admit it. He'll tell you it's no big deal and there are bigger things in life to accomplish. He'll tell you until you start to believe him.

Then you'll talk to others and start to realize that winning the Daytona 500 means almost as much to crew chiefs as it does to drivers, particularly when you're in the middle of Speedweeks.

"Oh, yeah," Johnson said. "The top of his world of what he's worked through being a body man through all the positions … being a crew chief on the car that won the Daytona 500 is it. Right now Darian is that guy."

Just don't tell Knaus that.

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

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