Dedication, drive help set Chad Knaus apart
November 19, 2013, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com
Ask folks in the garage about crew chief Chad Knaus and the responses almost always include terms such as dedicated, intense and focused.
Without a doubt, he's also one of the most talented crew chiefs in NASCAR today. As he and his driver, Jimmie Johnson, continue to pile up championships and victories, he's also considered one of the best of all-time.
Knaus, 42, has been paired with Johnson ever since the Hendrick Motorsports driver began competing full-time in 2002. With the 2013 championship now in hand, the two have claimed the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship on six occasions, including five in a row from 2006-10, and 64 of Johnson's 66 career victories have come with Knaus calling the shots.
Only two drivers have won more titles than Johnson -- Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt each won seven.
And only one crew chief has been more successful -- Dale Inman, who crewed Petty to his seven crowns and won an eighth as crew chief for Terry Labonte.
"I hired him when he was 19 or 20 years old," former crew chief and team owner Ray Evernham, a three-time champion with driver Jeff Gordon, said of Knaus. "I remember kidding around with him. I said 'Where do you want to be in five years?'
"He said, 'I want your job.'
"Now he's not only got my job, he's broken all my records."
The tremendous drive and dedication, Evernham said, is part of what sets Knaus apart. To compete at a championship level isn't easy. To be able to do it for such an extended period of time "is phenomenal."
"Chad is … I think certainly the best of his time, maybe the best ever," Evernham said.
Knaus and Johnson haven't always seen eye to eye -- at one point team owner Rick Hendrick sat the two down to determine if the combination could move forward or if it might be in everyone's best interest to split the pair up. That gathering, often referred to as the "milk and cookies" meeting, took place in 2005. The following year, Johnson and Knaus began their five-year run of title domination.
"I give Chad a lot of credit," Hendrick said. "He was running hard against the chip in those days. He had to learn how to take defeat. … They have tremendous respect for each other. The chemistry is the best it's ever been."
Knaus has also been called difficult, someone who is always striving to achieve perfection in every area and expects nothing less from those around him.
He once swapped pit crews in mid-race; even members of this year's championship-winning group changed during the course of the season. Sometimes such moves occur in the heat of battle, and sometimes they're done in a less hectic environment. But rarely are they made haphazardly.
"Chad's a smart guy, but he's not the only guy on that team," said Darian Grubb, who worked with Knaus at HMS for several years. "He's one of the staples. He's got a car chief in Ron Malec that is incredible and has been with Jimmie since the start, so he knows he can trust him and trust his opinion.
"Same thing with the engineering group … he's had several engineers with the team -- he's always going to get the best from each one, push them to their limits, always thinking about what's new, what's better. He does the same thing with all the mechanics. They actually have quite a bit of turnover if you look at the mechanical group versus a lot of the other teams, but they're always striving to be better and pushing each guy to their limit as to what they can accomplish.
"That's probably the biggest thing -- just how he uses his resources and makes sure everybody's pulling their weight and working toward getting Jimmie wins."
Evernham said he believes Knaus is as hard on himself as he is on those around him, but that "he also expects the same level of commitment from them as he gives. And you're not always going to find that."
"When I was a crew chief, people hated me," Evernham said. "I was a prick. … It was like 'look, the bottom line is if you could not make that car go faster or help us win races, I don't have time for you.' And that's just the way Chad has to be right now. He's got his way, it works and that's the way he leads."
Johnson, who has spent his entire career at HMS, said his crew chief's commitment and focus have played a huge role in how he has developed as a driver.
"The good thing with Chad is his intensity is there -- all that is an obvious, but he doesn’t have a filter," Johnson said. "He is not fearful of getting something off his chest. At times it can rub anyone … the wrong way, it can rub the competitors the wrong way and it can rub me the wrong way, but at least it’s out there. It’s nice working with a guy that isn’t afraid to get it off his chest. Because then you have a chance to work on it and you have a chance to address it.
"His intensity has shaped me into who I am today and I am very grateful to have that environment. I think I thrive in that environment. There are some drivers that want to crew chief from the seat. That is not our dynamic. He has created an environment for me to thrive in and to learn. So it’s worked out really well."
Andy Graves, vice president of chassis engineering and Toyota Sprint Cup Series program manager, also worked with Knaus at HMS, initially with Evernham and Gordon on the No. 24 team and then on the No. 5 entry when Graves became crew chief.
He remembers Knaus as being "very, very detail-oriented; one of the hardest working guys that I've ever been around and a guy that pays attention to detail like no other," he said. "He's really meticulous and always makes sure he has all his bases covered and always has a game plan if something goes wrong.
"With Chad's work ethic he was a hell of a student of Ray, and Ray was a great teacher for all of us. He paid attention and did all the right things and worked his ass off."
There's little balance, Graves said, when achieving that level of success. "It just keeps snowballing.
"That's his decision and obviously you have to admire what he's done in the sport and what he's been able to achieve with Jimmie.
"Those guys, to stay together for as long as they have and to have the success they've had, they deserve the respect of everybody in this garage."
As program manager for General Motors' Sprint Cup effort, Alba Colon has worked closely with Knaus, as well as with most of the crew chiefs and engineers in the Chevrolet camp.
Manufacturer support today comes in a variety of ways -- from working on the design of the body and various engine parts to helping develop and implement tools that will hopefully improve performance.
"He keeps me on my toes," Colon said of Knaus. "If you don't hear from him, you start to worry. Are we doing a good job and that's why we're not hearing from him, or are we not doing something and he hasn't told me," she said.
"He's the one I use to measure whether we are doing a good job. I always check with him, ask him to give me his insights. … Maybe he sees something from the crew chief side that an engineer doesn't. I look up to him as my ultimate crew chief to help me with everything.
"And to be honest with you, I give thanks to God every day that he is in my camp and not against us, because that would not be fun to have to compete against him."
He has tremendous focus, she said, and it is evident that it runs throughout the team.
"Maybe two years ago they had an accident at Texas I think," she said. "When that car went to the garage and the crew arrived to work on the car, there was complete silence. Every member of that team knew what to do. They didn't get in the middle of each other; they worked, they did the deal, Chad observed, said 'OK maybe tweak that one thing there' and there went Jimmie to do his job.
"That synchronization is unbelievable. Every member of that team knows what they need to do. And they have a great leader in Chad."
Through the years, Knaus has had his share of run-ins with the sanctioning body in his search for any and every advantage. He's been fined and he's been suspended. Two of Johnson's 66 wins came while Knaus was serving a suspension at the start of the 2006 season.
Such incidents have fueled the fire of those outside the sport who brand Knaus as a cheater. Oddly, there's an equally large contingent that seem to believe NASCAR officials look the other way when it comes to Knaus and the No. 48 team.
Robin Pemberton, vice president of competition for NASCAR and a successful crew chief himself, said labeling Knaus as a cheater "is very unfair."
"And I take exception to that," he said. "Because I will say, yes he has been busted a few times, but who hasn't?
"The difference is he is successful beyond anybody that's in the garage area now. I know what we do to inspect race cars in here and I know what our officials go through and I know what all the other teams do in here.
"Sooner or later people are going to have to come to grips with the fact that Chad Knaus is the greatest modern-era crew chief and Jimmie Johnson is the greatest modern-era driver.
"Some day you're going to have to accept that. And shame on the people who (don't) -- it will come and go before they realize what they missed."