Knaus in a happy place these days

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- So far Tony Gibson hasn't been referred to as the next Chad Knaus for helping Danica Patrick make history in the Daytona 500.

But give it time.

It's inevitable these days that when a crew chief in the Sprint Cup series accomplishes something special, he is compared to Knaus, the man behind five-time champion and reigning Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson. Last year Paul Wolfe, the crew chief for champion Brad Keselowski, was bestowed with that distinction.

It is the supreme compliment to Knaus, a 41-year-old native of Rockford, Ill.

But let's be clear. There is only one Knaus.

They say imitation is the greatest form of flattery, but nobody in the sport is close to duplicating what Knaus has accomplished during his 12 years in NASCAR's top series with Johnson. He is destined for the Hall of Fame, possibly in line to supplant eight-time champion Dale Inman as the greatest crew chief of all time.

But there was one thing missing from Knaus' résumé before Sunday.

A win in the Great American Race.

Knaus has insisted for years he was as much a part of Johnson winning the 2006 Daytona 500 as anybody on the No. 48 crew. He has insisted on this even though he watched the race from home after NASCAR ejected him from Daytona International Speedway for rules violations. He has insisted he didn't need to win the 500 to validate his career.

But you knew it nagged at him, if anything so he could see an end to the questions that came every preseason.

"To finally be able to come down here and win and be a part of this is definitely a huge dream come true, mostly so David Newton doesn't keep asking me about it," Knaus said in a postrace interview Sunday.

Dream. Come. True.

Nah, it didn't mean anything to him. He's only been wanting to be a part of winning the 500 since the early 1970s when he first recalled watching the race on ABC Sports.

"I remember when we won it in '06 and went back to the shop," team owner Rick Hendrick said. "[Chad] was happy. He built the car and the guys won the race, but he wasn't there. Something was missing."

Now it's not.

But what really was missing from Knaus' life in 2006 was balance. He was consumed by winning. He didn't accept defeat well. He didn't know how to have fun away from the track. That sometimes made him a not-so-fun guy for his crew to be around at the shop and track.

That changed a few years ago, sometime, Knaus said, after Johnson got the 50th of his 61 career wins in 2010. He doesn't work any less, but he's learned there is more to life than work.

He's engaged and planning a wedding with Lisa Rockelmann and talks about wanting to become a father. He gets a sparkle in his eye at the mention of babysitting Johnson's 2 1/2-year old daughter, Evie, as he and Rockelmann did last week.

"Ah, I love that little girl," Knaus said during Monday's championship breakfast at Daytona. "She's a ray of sunshine. We have so much fun. The other day … we had Play-Doh, we had a ball, we had a little microphone and she was singing. It was a lot of fun."

This wasn't the buttoned-down image most have of Knaus.

But perception isn't always reality, and reality doesn't always personify perception.

"Man, I don't care what people think about me," Knaus said. "I live my life."

And he lives it more fully than ever even though his work day still begins at 5:25 a.m. and ends when all the work is done.

"I can tell a difference," Hendrick said. "He's more at peace. You can't be one hundred percent, all you do is live in that shop and work on that car, and that's your whole life. If you don't win, you're so crapped out you can't live with yourself.

"There is a lot of other pieces to life. Having that balance makes him better. He's learned to delegate better to other guys and let them make mistakes and not cut their head off."

That doesn't mean Knaus doesn't want to be the best crew chief ever. That doesn't mean he doesn't want to win every weekend. That doesn't mean he's not thinking about work even when he's out enjoying himself.

There's a chip in his brain that always will be focused on work.

"He's very focused and obviously very bright, and has his eye on the ball," said Keselowski, who worked some with Knaus when he drove an HMS-built car for JR Motorsports.

But now Knaus is able to focus on more than just the ball.

"I still work just as hard, but I can work away from work," he said. "Like I can go and have a dinner and think about what we're going to do for a setup in Phoenix. I've learned how to balance that a little bit better."

You could see that on Tuesday when Knaus was a guest on a television broadcast announcing the new Sprint All-Star Race format. As relaxed as he appeared, you could almost see the wheels turning in his head for a way to beat the format like he did a year ago when Johnson won.


"Really?" Knaus said. "You're really asking that question? Of course I'm always trying to figure out how to beat the system, beat the rules, beat whatever. That's what I do. That's why my ass is always in trouble, I guess. But that's how I roll."

Knaus has been in trouble with NASCAR arguably more than any crew chief in the modern era. He spent the weeks after last year's Daytona 500 fighting a six-week suspension for an illegal C-post.

And he won.

But because Knaus pushes the gray areas doesn't make him a cheat or a bad person. It means he's doing what he's supposed to do, what crew chiefs have been doing from the great Smokey Yunick to Ray Evernham.

You can't begrudge him for that.

"I've known Chad an awful long time, on and off the racetrack," said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president for competition and a former crew chief. "Chad's a great competitor. And Chad over his career has not done anything that other crew chiefs haven't done.

"Chad and I don't have any issues."

And don't be fooled by Knaus' mellow demeanor, Pemberton added.

"He's very intense, so don't think just because you see a guy who is mellow right now it won't change on you," he said with a smile.

The difference now is Knaus doesn't let his intense side eat him up. As badly as he wanted to win the championship last year, in his mind the best performance the 48 team has had top to bottom, he didn't let it ruin his offseason.

As much as he wanted to win Sunday's Daytona 500, not winning wouldn't have crushed him.

"He's learned to accept failure, or not being the fastest car every time or winning every race," Hendrick said. "That's something he needed to do to survive. If he was on the chip all the time, he'd burn himself out."

Failure for Knaus would be a success to many. He remains a notch above the rest of the garage, which is why Johnson came into this season with an advantage with the new car.

Winning the Daytona 500 only validated that.

"I feel good, I feel comfortable," Knaus said. "I don't want to say relaxed, because there's an awful lot of work you've got to do to try to understand this new race car.

"But man, I feel happy. I'm in a good spot."

It's a spot nobody likely will match no matter how often they're compared to him.