Throughout the six Sprint Cup championships Jimmie Johnson has won, one theme has been a constant: Johnson being on top of his game when it counted most.
Sure, crew chief Chad Knaus has received his share of credit for preparing cars worthy enough to win Johnson both races and the championships.
But Knaus has also had his share of criticism over the years, especially during the early stages of Johnson’s six titles in eight seasons.
There were the multiple fines, suspensions and criticisms at some of Knaus’ actions that ran afoul of NASCAR’s top officials. While Knaus may have looked at some of his innovative thinking as outside of the box or pushing the envelope, NASCAR thought otherwise.
There’s nothing wrong with innovation, but Knaus early on pushed things too far until he crossed over the line and had to be pushed back by NASCAR.
Fans—non-Johnson fans, obviously—invariably called Knaus one of the worst names you can call anyone in any sport: a cheater.
But let’s reflect on Knaus over the last year and a half or so. He hasn’t been suspended, heavily fined or penalized in any major way. NASCAR told him to keep his innovating within the rules, and Knaus has done just that.
If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, and that’s what Knaus has done.
And you know what? He and Johnson have kept on winning. They won last year’s Cup championship by the book, and more recently have won the last two Sprint Cup races this season, making Johnson and the 48 team a lock for this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup and giving Johnson a chance to tie Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt for most Cup championships (seven) by a driver.
Even when fans were worrying and fretting earlier this season that Johnson hadn’t won any races, Knaus wasn’t worried. He knew the wins would come.
And now, after back-to-back victories at Charlotte last week and Sunday at Dover, Knaus and Johnson are riding high.
And while some fans may still hold him in contempt for his earlier career indiscretions, Knaus is a man not only back on top of his game, but also his life.
“Quite honestly I'm at the best point in my life,” Knaus said following Sunday’s win at Dover. “I've been very fortunate to have been in this sport for a long time. I've seen it grow and change, and it's been a weird circuitous route to get to where we are now.
“But quite honestly, I've never been happier in my life with my personal life, my performance at the racetrack, what we've got going on, and Jimmie has helped a lot with that.
“So has Mr. Hendrick (team owner Rick Hendrick) as far as making me understand that I've got to take time away from the facility and understand that there's life outside of motorsports.”
And that last comment tells a lot.
For too long, Knaus was like the Joe Gibbs of crew chiefs. He spent virtually every waking hour working on Johnson’s car, plotting strategy, making the pit crew the best in the sport and personally attending to every other detail that distinguishes a great crew chief—actually, one of the greatest ever in the sport—from just a good or average crew chief.
There were plenty of times Knaus would sleep over at the Hendrick Motorsports shop, much like the way Gibbs used to sleep on the couch in his office when he was leading the Washington Redskins to three Super Bowl titles.
Getting away from the sport, taking a step back if you will, may have prevented Knaus and Johnson from winning titles in 2011 and 2012, but the lessons Knaus learned as a result have made him not only a better crew chief—as if something like that was possible—but also a better human being.
Sure, racing is still the most important part of his work life, but he’s learned to appreciate and enjoy a personal life that previously hadn’t been there much.
“I've tried for a long time to deny that fact, but I'm really, really enjoying it all the way around,” Knaus said. “It's fun. Trust me, we're going back to Charlotte tonight and we're heading up to Loudon, New Hampshire, tomorrow evening, and then we go race Pocono and go we go back home from Pocono and then we head out to Chicago to tire test the week after that. It's busy as ever, but we're in a good spot right now. Everything is great.”
Knaus will one day take his place alongside Dale Inman in the NASCAR Hall of Fame as the two greatest crew chiefs to ever sit atop a Sprint Cup pit box.
But for now, Knaus is enjoying himself more than he ever has in his Cup career. And if things continue going in the direction they’ve been, they’re only going to get better.
“When we do finally start to hit our stride, all those things that everybody worked on starts to culminate, and we can get out there and really start to make things happen,” Knaus said.
And that’s probably the absolute LAST thing every other crew chief and team wanted to hear.
All quotes in this column were from a transcribed post-race transcript provided by NASCAR.
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