Commentary

JJ driving for third straight title; Knaus driven to make sure he gets there

Jimmie Johnson is driving for his third straight Cup title and a spot alongside Cale Yarborough as the only competitors to achieve the feat. JJ's crew chief Chad Knaus is driven to get him there, and to stand alone among his peers, writes Marty Smith.

Originally Published: October 22, 2008
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

Chad Knaus will forever be associated with Jimmie Johnson.

If Johnson goes on to win a third consecutive Sprint Cup Series championship next month he'll join Cale Yarborough (1976 to 1978) as the only drivers in NASCAR history to three-peat at the highest level.

Old news, I know.

But what you may not know is Knaus would become the first crew chief to ever win three straight Cup championships. Yarborough won the 1976 and '77 titles with Herb Nab calling the shots. In 1978 it was Tim Brewer and Travis Carter.

Knaus, then, would stand alone come Nov. 16.

"It's amazing what he's done," said Ray Evernham, who won three championships in four years as crew chief for Jeff Gordon's No. 24 Chevrolet, a team on which Knaus served as a tire changer while managing its chassis and body production programs.

"He's done a tremendous job. I firmly believe it's much more difficult in today's times, with all the restrictions. NASCAR has taken away so many tools crew chiefs can use.

"And the fact that he's held that team together, when people have thrown tremendous amounts of money around. What they're doing, you're seeing superstars. Historic. With Jimmie Johnson, his name has to be mentioned with Pettys and Allisons and Earnhardts and Gordons. And Knaus has to be up there with great coaches in history -- the Parcells, the Shulas and the Rileys."

They're not thought of as such, but crew chiefs are head coaches, making split-second strategy calls and personnel decisions that win and lose events and championships.

In other sports, great coaches are revered. But NASCAR's business model positions them in the background. In NASCAR it's always about the driver.

Johnson is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Knaus' obsession is one major reason why.

Ask if he's married and he'll say yes -- to the 48 car.

"Nothing in his life is put before racing," said Steve Letarte, Gordon's current crew chief and another who learned under Evernham's tutelage. "Some people have families or hobbies. This is his family. This is his hobby. Racing is everything to him. It's no fluke he's as successful as he is."

Single-minded
While others vacation or take a holiday Knaus is at the shop, holed up in his office viewing tapes of old races and analyzing decisions made, strategizing new ways to outsmart his rivals. The fear of being beaten due to a lack of preparation consumes him.

It's part of being an Evernham disciple.

"The Ray Evernham era, that's all we know," Letarte said. "Everybody makes it sound like [Knaus'] work ethic is a rarity, but on that team, that was the norm. We all worked like that. He never changed. I pride myself on my work ethic. I'll put it up against anybody in terms of hours or effort or time put in at the company. But Chad is the one that I don't want to try to match. I'd lose."

[+] EnlargeChad Knaus
AP Photo/Jim R.BoundsChad Knaus has sipped sweet success for all but two of Jimmie Johnson's 39 victories.

Letarte estimates his average workload at more than 85 hours a week.

"He outworks me. He's found a very, very comfortable place. It's hard to explain because he puts in a phenomenal amount of hours, but he's so in love with it, it doesn't burn him out," Letarte said. "He doesn't get tired of it. Only a small percentage of people find what they're born to do and love it. He's one of them.

"He's a racer. Here they are, what, season six or seven? He works as hard now, after all that success, as he did when he first became a crew chief. That's hard to do in any profession -- once you receive the accolades, to continue to want it that bad."

He's always wanted it that badly. In the late '90s, Dale Earnhardt Inc. hired Knaus away from Hendrick Motorsports to serve under crew chief Philipe Lopez as car chief on Steve Park's No. 1 Chevrolet. From the very outset, Knaus ruffled feathers. His unwillingness to accept anything but total dedication from his coworkers wasn't well received.

"He came in with so much passion, he was unlike anyone we had under the roof," said Michael Waltrip Racing GM Ty Norris, who at the time was DEI's team manager. "He was abrasive at first because he was extremely driven."

Norris tells the story that Knaus once approached him in the shop and said he was planning to fire a shop worker because the employee had asked him how the No. 1 car ran the previous weekend.

"Chad was mad because if a person didn't care enough to pay attention and watch the race on Sunday, Chad didn't want to ever have to count on him in the shop," Norris said.

Knaus' true passion was in the fabrication shop, and he spent a large majority of his time looking after the construction of the cars to ensure they were properly built from the ground up. It is unheard of for a car chief to be involved with building the cars, but Knaus wanted to make certain they were right from the moment they arrived in the shop.

"He pushed so hard that I was forced one day to have a shop-wide meeting that included the fab shop and the entire No. 1 team," Norris said. "It was explosive."

Norris gathered everyone together and let them air their differences.

"Chad knew the guys were like an angry mob, but he was man enough to stand in the middle of the room and answer all of the questions and face the critics head on," Norris said. "He took one bullet after another because no one pulled any punches. But he stood his ground and everyone knew they had to elevate their game or be left behind. That's when I knew he was special."

Envelope, please
NASCAR would never admit it, but there is no crew chief in the garage under more scrutiny. Knaus' willingness to push NASCAR's rules boundaries throughout his career has landed him in trouble at times, and as a result NASCAR surveys every centimeter of his race cars with a surgeon's precision. But in recent years a mutual respect has developed.

"There was a day that Chad drove me crazy, a day where you felt like posting a 24-hour guard on Chad was not enough," said John Darby, NASCAR's Sprint Cup director of competition. "When you're young and you're not completely in control of your situation, you're convinced the only way to win is outside the NASCAR rulebook.

"So you go that direction. Every crew chief has a small time period of their career that they believed the only reason they were getting beaten is because the other guy was cheating."

It took some severe penalties, heated talkings-to and convincing, but Knaus finally grew out of that, Darby said.

"Now, he's not going to let anything lay on the table," Darby said, laughing. "But on the other side of that is he can be successful within the rulebook. The way I realized that is the communication he and I now have vs. five years ago.

"Five years ago, the only time we talked was if I called him for a specific reason or saw him at the track. Now he's quick to pick up the phone and say, 'Hey, I'm working on this, what do you think?' And I'll say, 'Hey, that's pretty cool! Let's read the rule together and if it fits, go ahead.'

"Chad Knaus has reached the point in his career where it's more about the dedication to hard work, and accuracy and precision, that that's more valuable on the time sheet than a trick spring or shock. He beats guys straight up. That's what's cool."

Failure is not an option
Knaus' devotion to excellence on the race track affects his personal life away from it. But the fear of complacency and mediocrity are overbearing. Failure is a terrifying notion.

"I'm scared to death of it. Honestly, racing is all I've got. If I'm not good at that I don't have much else out there," Knaus said. "So like a lot of football coaches and baseball managers, we kind of pour our lives into our occupation. We do it because we love it, and because we know we're going to get a return on the effort we put into it. This is really all I want to do."

Since his early teens, it has been the most important thing in his life.

"It might not be possible to work harder than Chad does," Darby said. "His work ethic comes from where he was born. It's something he grew up with. Chad is out of that mold. He doesn't care if it takes 25 hours a day or eight days a week. He'll never be satisfied sitting still."

"His desire to always progress and his desire to always get better was something he always had," Evernham said. "He never, ever was complacent. I will tell you, all that's ever been on that guy's mind is to be the best crew chief that ever was. He straight up told me that."

He's already on the short list. Consider this: by winning at Martinsville on Sunday, Johnson passed Gordon on the all-time list for Cup Series win percentage. Johnson has 39 victories -- all but two with Knaus at the helm -- in 251 career starts, pushing his winning percentage to .155. Gordon's percentage stands at .150 (81 wins in 541 starts.)

And it gets better. Overall, Johnson is eighth all-time in win percentage, trailing only legends:

  1. Herb Thomas -- 21.1
  2. Tim Flock -- 20.6
  3. David Pearson -- 18.3
  4. Richard Petty -- 16.9
  5. Fred Lorenzen -- 16.4
  6. Fireball Roberts and Junior Johnson -- 15.9
  7. Jimmie Johnson -- 15.5

And to think, by Knaus' judgment it should be better. He feels like he gave two championships away, in 2004 and 2005. At the time his unyielding push to dominate wore on his driver and team, triggering a communication breakdown that nearly split them up. The No. 48 team had failed as favorites, and the finger-pointing and bickering began. The team was frustrated and the driver was prepared to wash his hands of it.

"I felt like my intensity level was probably too high at inopportune times," Knaus said. "That cost us some races and cost us some finishes. We definitely had some communication breakdowns, and once I learned that, I was able to sit back and reflect at what I'd done wrong, and try to make that better."

He had a little help, too. Johnson/Knaus was a proven union. Rare and special. Everyone knew it. So following the season, on the brink of parting ways, team owner Rick Hendrick summoned driver and crew chief to a well-documented Come-to-Jesus meeting.

"He sat Jimmie and I down in his conference room at Hendrick Motorsports and started talking a little bit, and all the sudden said, 'Oh, hang on a minute, I forgot something,'" Knaus recalled.

"And he walks out to the little kitchen area off of his conference room and comes back in with a half-gallon of milk and a box of cookies and said, 'Okay, now, if you guys want to act like a bunch of children we can sit here and have some cookies and go take a nap afterwards. But if you want to act like adults we're going to sit here and figure this out, and see if you guys want to win championships together or if you want to part ways and probably never win a championship.'"

Door-To-Door
with Marty Smith
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Point well taken.

"It was pretty cool the way Rick put it out there," Knaus continued. "He felt like if we worked together we could win a championship, if not multiple. He thought if we split we'd never win one.

"He put it out there. That was the beginning of Jimmie and my relationship growing even deeper than it already was. It was a difficult meeting, no doubt about it. There was a lot of things said that neither of us wanted to hear. But when we walked out of there, we walked out with a new appreciation for one another."

One of the hardest lessons Knaus ever had to learn was the importance of delegation. Micromanagement will not work at the Cup level. Take your hands off and trust your troops. In 2006 he focused on doing so and won the title. He evolved further in 2007, both personally and professionally, and won the title.

"He was very blunt when he started that he was going to be a crew chief," Norris said. "I told him he would never last if he didn't work on his communication and political skills. I told him to be successful, people around you must want you to be successful. Otherwise you're dead in the water. He is a different person now. He has nothing else to prove and people believe in him and his system now. The sky is the limit for him."

Now at the peak of his profession, he stands four races from history.

Everything he has ever worked for would be validated.

So what then? Celebratory vacation?

"That would be really cool," he said. "But it'd be time to go for four."

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.

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