CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The notes fluttered from Chad Knaus’ notebook last November just as Jimmie Johnson began his celebratory lap around Homestead-Miami Speedway. The duo had just won their second consecutive championship, but Knaus was more concerned with making sure his strategies didn’t land in the hands of a rival.
There was no time to rest.
“It’s been a phenomenal ride,” Knaus said immediately after that race ended. “Sad it’s over, but I can’t wait for Daytona now … all you want to do is just keep going. I think there are more wins out there for us. I think there are more championships out there for us.”
It’s that drive that had Knaus and his crew in the shop three weeks ago on a rare Sunday off, trying to figure out why Johnson faded over the final laps at Charlotte to finish sixth.
It’s why Knaus wouldn’t ride it out last week in Atlanta, calling Johnson into the pits for a four-tire stop then watching his driver pass nine cars in the closing laps as he stormed to a second-place finish that left the competition speechless.
And it’s how he’s put Johnson on the verge of joining Cale Yarborough as the only driver in NASCAR history to win three straight titles. Johnson goes into Texas Motor Speedway this weekend with a 183-point lead over Carl Edwards with just three races remaining, and a crew chief who won’t let up until every other driver is mathematically eliminated.
“He is more motivated by dominating,” Johnson said. “We’ll have what we consider the best car in practice, look at the lap tracker, and we might have a tenth on the field and he’s like ‘We need more.’ That’s just his mind-set. It’s more, more, more. We’ve got to be better. We’ve got to be better.”
Since Johnson and Knaus hit their stride three years ago, no team in NASCAR has been better than Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 48 team.
Oh, they’ve been good since their 2002 inception, and they challenged for the title in both 2004 and 2005. But Knaus was incapable of pacing himself, and the team faded over the final few months of those seasons.
Driver and crew chief were fed up with each other after the 2005 defeat, and team owner Rick Hendrick sat them down together during the offseason for a meeting that put them on this current course of dominance.
“We do a good job now of pacing ourselves during the year,” Knaus said. “Jimmie is pretty fresh, our team is pretty fresh, and we’re all really competitive and love stepping up to the plate to answer the challenge.”
But how did Knaus, who ran himself so hard during those first several years that he was spent by the time the Chase started, learn how to save his energy?
“I guess I’m just different now,” he said. “I’ve learned. As you mature you get wiser, hopefully. And I’ve gone through different scenarios, different points systems, different emotions, and I got to a place where I know I can do this now.”
Yet it has come at a cost for the 37-year-old Knaus, who is single, has no children and has dedicated his life to racing.
He was a crew chief at 14, when he called the shots as his father won the Rockford Speedway championship in their Illinois hometown. The duo also won the NASCAR Great Northern Series championship, and finished second in the Winston Racing Series before Knaus headed out on his own following his high school graduation.
He was 22 when he made it to NASCAR as an original member of Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham’s “Rainbow Warriors.” Knaus advanced through the ranks — he was a tire changer, a general fabricator and eventually managed the chassis and body program for the No. 24 — as the team won championships in 1995 and 1997.
Knaus left Hendrick after that second title to gain experience in positions that were already filled at the powerhouse organization. He made it to crew chief for Stacy Compton at Melling Racing in 2001, but was back at Hendrick at the end of the season when they needed a leader for Johnson’s new team.
His story is not unique to NASCAR, but his sacrifices can be considered extreme. He’s been known to work holidays and bye weeks, often reluctant to take a vacation. Aside from his weekly stint as a Speed analyst, and an occasional round of golf, Knaus can most likely be found working.
“I haven’t made any sacrifices as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “A sacrifice is giving up something you love in order to accomplish something else. What I love is putting the amount of effort into this that we need to accomplish what we want as a team. I don’t have a lot to look back on and I say ‘I missed out on that.’
“Those other things are just not on my priority list right now. If I wanted to have kids and wanted to be married, I would. But I’m not and if people say it’s because of my job, that would be false.”
Any trade-offs are worth it to Knaus, and assuming Johnson wraps this title up, he’ll be the first crew chief to win three straight titles. Herb Nab called the shots for Yarborough in 1976 and ‘77, while Tim Brewer and Travis Carter led the effort in 1978.
Knaus claims earning a place in history doesn’t matter right now — “I’ll reflect on that after I retire. Maybe late Sunday night in Miami” — but his boundless confidence says otherwise. Although he downplayed his pit call in Atlanta, rivals marveled at a moxie that was last seen when Evernham sat atop Gordon’s pit box.
It’s no coincidence that Knaus has been nicknamed “Little Ray,” in a not-always-flattering nod to Evernham.
But Knaus insists he doesn’t model himself after the man voted the greatest crew chief of all-time. Rather, he cites lessons from Rick Hendrick, people skills from Robbie Loomis, balance from Steve Letarte and even temperament from rival Greg Zipadelli.
The drive, of course, he learned from Evernham.
“I don’t know that any one person is the best, a lot have good qualities,” he said. “And I’m certainly not the best.”
By the time he leaves NASCAR, his record may argue otherwise. But Knaus isn’t sure when those days will come. Right now he’s focused on winning a title this year, and next year and maybe even the year after.
“I’ll be here five more years. Maybe,” he said. “I don’t want to be a crew chief out there rolling out of bed, my back hurts, drinking six cups of coffee to keep moving. I’ll go until I figure out what my next challenge is, and right now my challenge is winning championships.”