Knaus feels rejuvenated for stretch drive
July 23, 2013, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
Even with his driver Jimmie Johnson holding a full-race Sprint Cup Series championship lead (56 points) and boasting a series-best four victories -- including the Daytona 500 -- and even as his team returns to Indianapolis Motor Speedway this week where Chad Knaus ranks as the winningest crew chief in NASCAR history (four wins) -- Knaus sheepishly admits he was still slightly unnerved about taking some time off during the series' final off-week.
"The first thing my buddy said when I walked up to him on the beach this weekend was, 'I wonder if Dave Rogers is on vacation,'" Knaus said, Tuesday, referring to Kyle Busch's crew chief. "I almost turned around immediately and went back to Charlotte.
"But you have to -- you have to be able to eject a little bit. I have a really good friend of mine that said, if you don't reward your successes, you'll never want to be successful, and Jimmie has helped teach me that over the years.
"And again, I only took ‑‑ look, I took three days off, so it wasn't like I completely ejected, you know. But I took three days off. I was able to relax, have a good time, hang out with one of my best friends and many of my other best friends and just chill. It was really good and I probably would have done it either way."
It may be unsettling for the rest of Johnson's competition to imagine what a well-rested, rejuvenated Knaus means for the stretch run considering the way things have gone already during a frantic, busy stretch this year.
If keeping his team focused and providing big-picture perspective is his biggest challenge, it's good to be Knaus.
"As far as keeping our feet on the ground, it's really rather simple with the group of guys that we've got," Knaus said. "We all know that in seven weeks, this is all going away: This point lead, the momentum, the victories, all that is going to mean nothing as soon as we get to Chicagoland Speedway, and when we get there, we have to be on top of our game.
"So to motivate these guys right now isn't really -- the issue is making them realize that in seven weeks, they have to take their games to the next level and that's really hard to do. Because if you sit back now and think that you can coast until Chicago, you're sadly mistaken, because the most important thing to do going into Chicago is to make sure you have momentum on your side, and that's what our focus is."
Furthermore, Knaus said, he doesn’t feel his team has peaked despite the early-season success. But it's definitely more a matter of fine-tuning, than overhauling. In the last race at New Hampshire, for instance, a small oversight cost the team a front-row spot when Johnson's No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet failed post-qualifying inspection because it measured too low.
It was the first time in Johnson’s career he had started 43rd -- dead last -- on the grid. Yet, he methodically worked his way up through the field to finish sixth and extended his points lead.
"We've had seasons that are very similar to this," Knaus explained. "But I'll be quite honest with you, I don't feel our team is at ten‑tenths yet. We have got a long ways to go. The guys that do a lot of the car stuff, the engineering aspect of what it is we do, we are still in the infancy of our relationship. There's a lot for us to improve upon and we are trying to get better weekly.
"We have had some small mistakes and we've had some small mistakes and we've had some small problems, one of which as recently as New Hampshire. We have got to get better there.
"So we have got, over the course of the next seven weeks, for us to be operating where I feel like we need to be operating, we have a long (row) to hoe."
Of course Knaus is famous for his work ethic, attention to detail and high standard of satisfactory. It's a mindset that helped him make NASCAR history leading Johnson to five consecutive Sprint Cup championships and it's what makes his team a favorite to achieve a sixth title -- something many doubted would ever happen again in what is the most competitive era the sport has ever seen.
"It's kind of funny; I always am in just a semi‑state of a little bit of fear; I'm not going to lie," Knaus said with a laugh. "I fear the fact that one day, we'll never win a race again. I fear the fact that one day I won't work with Jimmie again. I fear the fact that one day, I won't have this amazing facility at Hendrick Motorsports to work in.
"And I try to work as hard as I can every single day to go out there and win races, because I know at some point in time, it's going to go away.
"And you just can't take anything for granted."