Knaus Questions Provide Winning Answers for Johnson
Then we move on to discussions of various members of the opposite sex, and their relative merits or lack thereof. Why is it, we wonder, that the only person on earth who has managed to find someone with the elusive combination of Mr. Right and Mr. Right Now is ... Jimmie Johnson?
Yes, you heard me correctly. Whether your shopping list calls for a minor chassis adjustment, a fraction of a second's worth of speed or a Sunday afternoon reservation at ultra-exclusive Chez Victory Lane, Chad Knaus, crew chief for Johnson’s No. 48 Lowe’s team, is the right man for the job.
My first personal experience with Knaus came when I was working at Darlington Raceway. NASCAR had mandated that all tracks hosting Sprint Cup Series race weekends install Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) barriers, commonly known as soft walls. Soft walls are a safety measure; they help to absorb impact when a stock car makes contact with a racetrack’s retaining wall.
SAFER barriers reduce the width of a racetrack by about two feet. That isn’t a big deal at most places, but at narrow old Darlington, it’s a substantial percentage of the racing surface.
Darlington Raceway installed the SAFER barriers in 2003 and sent out a press release to let everyone know what was going on, and that was that ... until a couple of weeks later, when my phone rang. It was Knaus, politely asking if I would be so kind as to take photos of the new walls from several different angles, and e-mail them to him.
I said certainly I would, and casually commented that his was the first call I’d had asking for pictures.
The response I got was similar to what might happen if you asked a teenager to loan you a hundred bucks. The classic combination of deer and headlights comes to mind. Knaus was dumbstruck. I might as well have been speaking Chinese. His brain simply could not process the fact that there was free information to be had regarding a track where his team came to race each season, and no one else had asked for it.
No one else ever did. And Jimmie Johnson swept both races at Darlington the following year. Coincidence? Maybe.
Last year, during Champion’s Week in New York City, it seemed that I bumped into Knaus at every turn. The particular incident I remember best was something very small. A group of guests was having dinner in the kitchen of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, and one of the menu items was something called pumpkin gnocchi.
We don’t really eat a lot of gnocchi down here in South Carolina, and in the interest of full disclosure, I have to tell you it isn’t one of my favorites. It’s a little bite-sized dumpling type thing, which to me probably tastes a whole lot like a slug would taste, if you were inclined to eat a slug. Which I am not.
I was also pretty sure the pronunciation was something that would rhyme with “blotchy.” I was wrong, but I never would have known that, because I never would have asked.
Knaus, on the other hand, made the call. Before enjoying his serving of gnocchi, he politely asked the chef the correct name of the dish -- “nyokey,” which rhymes with hokey pokey. And that’s what it’s all about.
Certainly, Knaus has paid his dues and climbed the NASCAR ladder steadily to get to his current spot on the top rung. From 1993 to 1997, he worked with Ray Evernham on Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 team at Hendrick Motorsports before leaving to take a job at (then) Dale Earnhardt, Inc.
After a couple more moves in the next two years, he landed with Evernham once again, in the fledgling Dodge program. In 2002, he was offered a job back at Hendrick Motorsports as crew chief for a rookie driver by the name of Jimmie Johnson. The rest, literally, is NASCAR history.
The ride hasn’t always been a smooth one. Knaus is a guy with a lot of nicknames, ranging from “The Magician” to “Cheatin’ Chad,” depending on which side of his fence you happen to be standing. Some consider him an innovator, while others accuse him of having a flagrant disregard for the NASCAR rulebook.
Either way, there’s no disputing the fact that whatever he’s doing is definitely working. In 2008, he became the first crew chief in NASCAR history to win three consecutive Cup Series championships.
Think about that one for a minute. In six decades of racing, this feat had never been accomplished. There’s a reason they’re called “firsts.” They only happen once.
So the next time the No. 48 car seems to come out of nowhere to win a race -- and that happens fairly frequently -- take time to remind yourself of the reason why Chad Knaus seems to be the guy with all the answers.
He isn’t afraid to ask the questions.
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