HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- It was one year ago this week, and a foregone conclusion: The most successful driver-crew chief collaboration to infiltrate NASCAR since the Jeff Gordon-Ray Evernham juggernaut was beyond salvage.
The deterioration was striking, outwardly obvious, and in a Nextel Cup garage where keeping secrets is next to impossible, the word had gotten out: Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus were through.
Knaus puts far too much pressure on himself and demands virtually unattainable excellence. And as the 2005 Nextel Cup Chase neared completion, those demands had worn thin with his race team. And his driver.
Despite emotional exhaustion by all -- especially Knaus and Johnson -- Team 48 marched into the 2005 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in title contention. Then came the proverbial last straw: Johnson felt a vibration in his Chevrolet, and the decision was made to stay out. A rear tire blew, shooting Johnson into the outside wall.
Season over. Relationship on the verge.
Having mediated the argument for weeks, team owner Rick Hendrick, in typical fashion, called a meeting to lay it all on the table.
It was a critical decision.
"We sat down and tried to look at what had happened to us, and how we can be better in giving more guys responsibility, and trying to take a deep breath, and I just applaud both of them," a champagne-soaked Hendrick said late Sunday night, flanked by his champion driver and crew chief.
"They made that decision, and they have just -- when things got tough this year, they cinched it up between the two of them. I've seen Chad tell Jimmie, 'Hey, man, things are going to be great.' And I've heard Jimmie tell the same to Chad."
That, he said, is a direct result of that meeting one year ago.
"I think it's just one, wanting to make it work and making that decision at the end of the year last year," Hendrick said. "I'm real proud of them because we went through some pretty tough times, and some times where you could point fingers or let the pressure get to you, and they never did this year."
Knaus deserves major credit. You can meet all day, hash it out all day, but until the subjects involved are willing to evolve, it's all for naught. Knaus evolved. His precise focus never wavered, but his demeanor changed. He learned to accept setbacks not of his own doing and move on.
A wreck at New Hampshire. A foiled victory march at Kansas. Dumped at Talladega. Yeah, Knaus and Johnson faced setbacks during the 2006 Chase. But they stayed the course, posted five straight top-2 finishes, erased a 156-point deficit and won the team's first championship.
"I think that's why they rebounded so tough in the Chase," Hendrick said. "And that's as good of a combination as I've ever had in racing."
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.