Chad Knaus, the man behind Jimmie Johnson, is in a ticklish position.
He knows that without Jeff Gordon, he wouldn't be making history as the most successful rookie crew chief in Winston Cup history. No one else has steered a rookie team to first place in the standings, as Knaus did in September. In fact, you have to go all the way back to 1966 to find a rookie who captured second place, which is where Knaus had the Lowes team for most of October. If you want to talk the history of the modern era, he's still doing better than his renovation rivals at the Home Depot team. When they debuted in 1999 with Tony Stewart, they got as far up as fourth.
But Knaus, 30, doesn't want to talk history. He wants to talk about this season, where Stewart has the points lead and the Gordon-owned Lowes team that Knaus heads is in third -- 150 points behind with just three races left.
This is the time crew chiefs lose their hair if they haven't already, the time when anything can happen. Race winners get up to 185 points. Last-place finishers can get as little as 34. So if Stewart has some unfortunate luck on a day Johnson pulls out a win, this thing can come down to the last lap.
It's why Knaus stays up late at night wondering how his rookie driver will handle the pressure. And why he's in a ticklish position when it comes to worrying that the perks of being in Gordon's employ might ever-so-slightly fog Johnson's focus.
As soon as the season is over, for example, Jimmie and Jeff plan to fly to the tropical hotspot of Gran Canaria, off the coast of Spain, where they'll be representing America in a rally race that pits the best drivers in the world against one another. Presumably, that applies to the island's discos as well as its racecourse.
"It's my job to keep Jimmie in check, and a lot of times Jeff can help," Knaus says. "But every so often, Jeff can also hurt. Especially when he flies around in his jet and takes Jimmie with him."
As my story in the current isssue of The Magazine shows, Jimmie Johnson is the kind of sidekick that Gordon's never had -- part running buddy, part protégé. But behind his star-turn lies Knaus, who also owes a huge debt to Gordon.
This time last year, Knaus was the crew chief of a team that finished in 33rd place and had lost its sponsor. Then he got him a call from Gordon's team manager, Brian Whitesell, who asked him to lunch.
Knaus might have been an unknown outside the garage area, but not to Gordon. He was a tire changer on the 1995 team that helped Gordon win his first title and had worked his way up to chief chassis man of the Du Pont team in 1997, when he shared in a second Winston Cup. But things had changed since he left that season.
The man who mentored him, Ray Evernham, left Gordon's crew, replaced by Robbie Loomis, whom Knaus found sitting next to Whitesell when he arrived at a sandwich joint near their shop last November.
Between the two well-paid gear-heads sat Johnson. "I didn't know Jimmie at all," Knaus says, proving how anonymous they both were. "I'd never even watched the Busch races."
Knaus talked his way into a job that day, but afterwards did a lot of listening. Defying convention, he ignored the banks of expensive computers that he was given, and what they said about what was happening before his eyes. Instead, he listened to the weakest link in the chain: his rookie driver. "It taught us to trust each other and learn the same language fast," he says.
Three months after their first meeting, they'd won the pole in Daytona.
The early betting was that Johnson's 48 team would serve as a kind of research car for the 24. But in an odd way, the reverse has proven true. Gordon's team had so much success last year that they've been disinclined to gamble, tending (for better or worse) to go with what they know. At the same time, they've handed Knaus two prize cars. Johnson's wins in California and Dover came in machines that had previously won for the 24 team.
"If you look at the points, we could be right up there if we had their wins," Gordon says. "But my feeling was that to make ourselves better, we had to give the best equipment to the 48 team."
While Johnson's driving has often been brilliant, the distribution of their finishes has reflected particularly well on Knaus. Most scouts thought that since Johnson was a former desert truck racer, he'd excel on the short tracks, with all the banging and sliding they cause. So did Johnson. "I thought that's where I'd hit the ground running," he says. "But the [Winston] Cup cars are heavier. You can't stop or react as fast you can in [the lighter] Busch cars. As a result, I've been overdriving." His average short track finish is 21st. By contrast, Knaus' aerodynamic program has given him an 8th place average finish on the intermediate tracks, and a pair of top-10s in four super-speedway races.
There are some who think Knaus is more than just technically gifted. After he helped Johnson win their first race in California, jealous rivals whispered that the car was too hooked-up to be legal; some wondered whether it was due to traction control (a banned technology). Two months later, NASCAR docked him 25 championship points for trying to get an edge at Daytona by tinkering with his suspension to make the car lower, and thus more resistant to wind. Knaus refused to apologize for it then, and it's no different now.
"Instead of trying to understand what I'm doing, they just eliminate it," he says. "They've been trying to get me to conform. But I'm not going to stop thinking outside the box." It especially burns Knaus when he's called a silver spoon crew chief. His latest fine from NASCAR was for cursing on national TV after their second win at Dover while he described how hard his team works.
But the real secret weapon may turn out to be the bond between his boss and driver. With the season coming to crunch time, he's asked if he'd sleep better if the two weren't thick-as-thieves.
He pauses for a moment, wondering if this is time for candor, a joke, or deflection. He decides to go with an indelible image. "There are mornings when Jeff will be in the motor coach and Jimmie will bust in to say 'I got pancakes. Who wants some?' These guys are really fueling each other."
Shaun Assael a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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