Pocono Shows why Knaus is NASCAR's Best
Over the Wall Gang
By any measure, Chad Knaus's run with Hendrick Motorsports has had an incredible amount of success. He's won five consecutive championships and had the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet in contention for several others. Since teaming with Jimmie Johnson in 2002, Knaus's teams have never finished below sixth in the championship standings and have won at least two races per year. Yet it was the #48's performance in Sunday GoBowling.com 400 that shows in details just why Chad Knaus is NASCAR's finest crew chief.
Jimmie Johnson, After Mid-Race Blown Tire
First, his team unloaded fast. While they didn't show everything they had in the first practice (running 16th quickest), Johnson took the pole, setting a new track record in the process. As rain cancelled following practices, the team essentially had to “run with what brung 'em” when the green flag dropped. When it did, Johnson jumped out to the lead and stayed at or near the front until a blown tire sent him flying into the wall midway through the race. In short, Knaus did his job during the week by putting a car on the track that was at or among the best in the field.
Unloading fast is important. It gets you good qualifying runs and lets you focus on fine tuning the car in race trim once you reach the track. But unloading fast is only half the battle.
The second item that shows Knaus's dominance this weekend came after the wreck. For many teams, the damage sustained by the #48 would have, at the very least, meant the end of a competitive day. For some, it might've meant the end of the day entirely. Witness the #11 team packing it in after Denny Hamlin suffered similar damage after an early spin. Hamlin's team had the time to fix their car. There were no reports of engine damage that might've made the wreck terminal. Yet they decided to call it a race and load up the truck. Perhaps that's because their championship hopes are long gone. But they had every opportunity to fix the car and get back in the race as Johnson's team did.
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A Championship Pair
Not only did Chad Knaus keep his team in the race, he made them competitive. Over the course of several pit stops, the team made a series of repairs on the car ranging from a hood flap to a spark plug wire. A track like Pocono, with long straightaways, also required significant exterior repairs to make the car aerodynamically whole. Knaus's team did it all, identifying and solving the key problems in the extremely limited time available to them- staying on the lead lap until the end of the day. He didn't finish in the top five as the other three Hendrick Motorsports cars did. But the 13th place finish Johnson ended with must have looked like the summit of Mt. Everest given where they were on lap 80. He even managed to extend his point lead on second place Clint Bowyer to 77 points.
It is his ability to get something out of nothing and excellence out of something that sets Chad Knaus apart. During the five consecutive championships, Knaus-led teams ended with a DNF (Did Not Finish) a total of 11 times. Despite the crap shoot at restrictor plate tracks, the beating and banging at short tracks, and the ever-present possibility of bad luck, the team averaged 2.2 DNFs per year over a five year period. No matter what the circumstance, Knaus tried to get the car back on the track and to see just what might be possible.
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You might say that Chad Knaus has learned from the past. From the very moment Knaus and Johnson hooked up they were on the fast track. Having the chassis and setups from defending series champion Jeff Gordon didn't hurt, but the pair made the most of what they were given and finished 2002 with three wins, four pole starts, and a fifth place finish in the final standings. They won 15 races and contended for the championship the following three years, coming up just shy on multiple occasions. The flaw in the program? The inability to finish races when faced with adversity. Despite eight wins in 2004, the seven DNFs caused Johnson to fall short of a championship. Winning mattered but finishing the job mattered more.
Championships aren't won solely by winning races. They're won by taking a 20th place car and getting a top ten with it. They're won by taking a top ten car and finishing in the top three. And championships are won by taking a wrecked pile of metal and being able to turn it back into a race car good enough to finish in the top half of the field. That was the ultimate lesson of 2002-2005 for Chad Knaus and it's one he's taken to heart. It's also a lesson that Matt Kenseth crew chief Jason Ratcliff may want to take a page from, as his teams have won four races already in 2013 but stand 134 points out of 1st place thanks to multiple DNFs.
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This success hasn't come without some controversy and he's given his critics have plenty of material to work with. Knaus is the active garage leader in prior penalties from NASCAR. Twice he's spent six races on the shelf due to unapproved parts or modifications to the #48. He was penalized a third time in 2012 but much of those penalties were overturned on appeal. Those are just the times he's been caught. His pre-race comments at Talladega in 2011 suggested something less-than-legal about the car on that day as well. The #48 car struggled to get through inspection this past weekend, prompting Kyle Busch to remark that perhaps his team should have some “issues” with inspection to catch up.
In NASCAR, the difference between cheating and innovation likely depends on which car gets caught. NASCAR has a long history of its teams working in 'grey' areas of the rulebook. Mark Grace, former first baseman for the Chicago Cubs, coined the phrase, “If you're not cheating, you're not trying.” It may as well have been a NASCAR crew chief's motto. For decades, celebrated crew chiefs such as Harry Hyde, Ray Evernham and Dale Inman lived in the grey areas. They constantly looked for anything that might give their team an edge. Their innovations won races and they were hailed as visionaries who pushed NASCAR's technical development forward.
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That was a different era. Particularly with the 2007 release of the gen 5 Car of Tomorrow, NASCAR has put teams on notice that they want races determined on the track and not in a race team's engineering room. Effectively, they told the teams that there is no more grey; either the car is built to NASCAR's specifications or it will be penalized. The idea was to make the cars technically equal so that an individual driver's skill and a team's race strategy would be the key to victory. Someone like Chad Knaus would have been celebrated working as a crew chief in 1983. In 2013, he's Public Enemy #1 to many race fans.
Yet through all of the controversy, the #48 team continues to win. Some have pointed out that the five consecutive championships may not have occurred without the advent of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, NASCAR's version of a playoff system. This year, that point could be turned on its head; without the Chase resetting points after Richmond, the 2013 title chase would already be a virtual lock to be Jimmie Johnson's sixth title. His poor races are better than many in the field can manage on their best day. And his good races put everyone else on notice that the #48 is as good as it ever was. With Knaus calling the shots, that's likely to be the case for the foreseeable future.