CHARLOTTE — The first thing you should know about this Chad Knaus-Jimmie Johnson dynasty is that NASCAR does everything in its power to prevent it from happening. It’s nothing personal. No sport in America, perhaps no sport on earth, is regulated, controlled, monitored, checked and policed as intently as the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. They enforce an enormous and secretive rulebook based on one premise: NASCAR doesn’t want dynasties. NASCAR wants wild, unpredictable, delirious racin’.
But there’s something about those two guys and the way they interact and fight and pull together that nullifies all of NASCAR’s efforts for parity. Knaus and Johnson are the best team in American sports these days — they just won their sixth championship in the last eight years.
What is it? How do they do it? Well, here’s a story they both share separately:
It was the day before the final race at Homesteam-Miami Speedway. Jimmie Johnson needed only to finish in the middle of the pack in the race to win the championship, and as he drove in the practice round he felt particularly ready. The car was responding to his every maneuver.
“Man,” Johnson said as he drove in practice, “the car feels really good,”
“Yeah,” Knaus said, “it might feel good. But it’s (bleepin’) slow. We’ve got to go faster.”
Faster? The two men glared at each other. They had won five championships together. Jimmie Johnson was making his case as the greatest stock car driver ever. Chad Knaus was making his case as the greatest NASCAR crew chief ever. Johnson spoke in his measured, California way. “Well,” he said, “I don’t know, it’s really comfortable.”
And Knaus spoke fast in a frenzied Chicago accent: “Look, we have to find a way to make the car go faster. We have to make sure you’re able to run up front. If there’s a problem, we need the speed so we can maneuver and get back up toward the front. We have 267 laps, there will be a lot of strategies, and we’ve got to be aggressive here. We’ve got to make sure the car has speed in it.”
Johnson listened and then, finally, shrugged and nodded. Knaus and his group made the adjustments. The car did not feel as comfortable for Johnson after that. But in practice the car had the fastest five, 10 and 15 laps in the field. The next day, Johnson and Knaus ran the race they wanted to run, finished strong, and won their seventh championship.
“Thank you,” Knaus said to Johnson.
“No, man,” Johnson said. “Thank you. You were right. We had to go faster.”
* * *
The crew chief wants a faster car. The driver wants a a car that can be controlled. This is the natural contradiction of the sport, the perennial clash of NASCAR, and maybe that helps explain why so few teams can stay on top. Then, you throw in NASCAR’s habit of changing rules to even the field, and you see why there has been so much fluctuation.
How much fluctuation? Put it this way: This was the 10th season of the NASCAR chase — the 10-race playoffs at the end of the season — and in those 10 seasons 18 different drivers have finished in the Top 5. Kevin Harvick has finished in the Top 5 four times — but he has never finished higher than third. Tony Stewart has won the Chase twice but has not finished Top 3 in any other year. Brad Keslowski won the championship in 2012; he and his team did not even make the chase playoffs in 2013. This is just how NASCAR wants it.
So how are Johnson and Knaus immune from all this sea-sickness? They have won the championship six times, but perhaps even more amazing, they have finished Top 5 every single year but one (that off-year, 2011, they finished sixth). How can they stay so consistently great? How do they keep on dominating this sport that resists domination?
Rival fans point to certain things. They say that the Johnson-Knaus team is well-funded by Rick Hendrick and Hendrick Motorsports. It is true, but there are other Hendrick teams (Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhart Jr. and Kasey Kahne are all run by Hendrick Motorsports) and there are plenty of other rich teams that spend as much as Hendrick.
Rivals will point to Johnson’s conservative driving — this year he finished in the top ten 24 times — and say NASCAR rewards consistency over excellence. But this is absurd: Johnson has won 66 races, which is multiples of anybody else over the same time period.
Rivals will point to Knaus’ willingness to push the edge — Knaus has been at the center of a few controversies and has been suspended by NASCAR for rules violations. But this, too, is a familiar story; every successful crew chief has clashed with NASCAR over regulations.
Rivals will point to … well, at some point rivals don’t know where to point. There’s just something about that combination, something about Knaus’ hyper-competitiveness and Johnson’s unnatural calm, that sparks a chemical reaction.
“With a lot of crew chiefs and drivers,” Knaus says, “the first thing that happens when things go bad is they start to attack each other instead of pulling in towards one another.”
So why don’t you and Jimmie attack each other?
“We do,” Knaus says with little smile on his face. “I guess we just work through it.”
* * *
Before we go into Chad Knaus’ office, he warns that it is a total mess. People always say this sort of thing, but nothing can prepare you for what Knaus’ office will look like.
The office … is … spotless — utterly, completely, almost comically spotless. No paper out of place. No picture hangs even a quarter of an inch askew. The glass wall behind the desk is as clear as a Colorado sky — not a single streak. The floor looks as if it was steam-cleaned three minutes before we arrived. The office is not just clean and organized but perfect, like the lobby of a fine hotel. The files closest to Knaus are the files he needs most regularly. The files in the cabinet across the way are the files he only needs every so often. The small stack of papers by his computer is today’s idea, and the wall above his computer is bare and painted an agreeable color, because he wants no distractions there.
“This is a mess?” you ask him.
“Yeah,” Knaus says. “All this stuff has got to go.”
All of it has to go. In the next couple of weeks, Knaus will take every trophy, every picture, every souvenir, every knickknack and tchotchke and gift and fan letter, and put them all into boxes. Then he will put those boxes in a storage facility with all the other boxes from all the other racing years.
Will you ever look at those things again?
“I hope so,” he says. “Someday, if I live long enough.”
Why does he do this? Knaus does not seem to understand the question. It’s a new year. That means a new start. Everything must be reset. The office must be stripped down to nothing. This seems obvious to him. Knaus sees his pristine office as a mess because all the stuff in it is from this past year. It has to be boxed up and shipped out. Time moves on.
Maybe this cuts to the heart of what makes Knaus go. Everything must be just so. He grew up in racing — his father, John, was a race car driver in the midwest. More or less all of Knaus’ early memories revolve around racing. He remembers taking his afternoon naps in the infield while cars roared around the track. He was his dad’s crew chief by the time he turned 14.
“I was good at it,” he says when trying to explain what drew him to building race cars. You get the sense there was something more. John was tough and demanding. Knaus does not talk much about his father, but he does tell a story about this time that he made a bracket for John’s race car. Chad was very young then, maybe 7 or 8, and he put the bracket on the car.
“What the hell is that?” John asked.
“It’s a bracket,” Chad replied.
“Would you put that on YOUR race car?” John asked his son. Chad kind of shuffled around and finally said, “No, I guess, probably not.”
“Then get it the (bleep) off mine,” John said.
“That was a good lesson,” Chad says now, and he learned it well. When Knaus was in high school, he worked at his father’s shop seven days a week. He admits that he was a loner; alone with a race car, that’s where he felt happiest. He felt best when trying to work out that perpetual puzzle of how to make it go a little bit faster. He remembers one other thing John Knaus said all the time: “You are never done with a race car. It’s just time to go race.”
When he was 19 he moved to North Carolina to get into NASCAR. He worked as a fabricator for Jeff Gordon and his legendary crew chief Ray Evernham. He worked his way up. Knaus bounced around to a couple of other teams. In 2002, he became crew chief for a promising young driver named Jimmie Johnson.
“I don’t want this to sound weird,” Knaus says. “But racing has always been there for me. It’s always there. In my life, there have been different family issues, different girlfriends, they come and they go. But racing is always there.”
“That sounds weird, doesn’t it?” he asks. “Please don’t make me sound like a freak.”
* * *
They call it the milk-and-cookies meeting. That happened at the beginning, back in 2005, when Knaus and Johnson were at each other’s throats all the time. The two had almost absurd success immediately. They won the pole at Daytona in their first race together. They won their 10th race together at Fontana, Calif. (this is the one and only trophy that Knaus keeps in his office year after year). They finished fifth in the championship in their first year.
But they fought all the time.
“We all have egos,” Knaus says. “Jimmie has an ego — he thinks he’s right. He thinks he’s the best race car driver in the world, and if he’s not winning races then it’s the car’s fault. I have an ego. We build the best race cars in the world, and if we’re not winning it’s the driver’s fault.”
At some point, the relationship got contentious enough that Rick Hendrick himself called a meeting. He brought them both into a room, and there was milk, cookies and Mickey Mouse plates.
“Boys,” Hendrick said, “It’s time we start talking to each other.”
“At first we just kind of laughed,” Johnson says, “but Mr. Hendrick was completely serious. I remember at some point he said, ‘We’re not leaving this room until we get everything off our chests.'”
Hendrick pushed them to be entirely honest with each other. Jimmie wanted to know if Knaus could bend at all. Knaus wanted to know if Jimmie could be tough and driven enough to be a champion.
“I could see that the relationship was about to get ugly,” Hendrick says now. “I could see that it had gotten to the point with Chad and Jimmie where they were not sure they were going to be able to last. And from the outside, I could see they were so close, they were so good.
“They were 90 percent good. And I felt like it was worth trying to fix the other 10 percent. I told them, ‘Boys, you can try something new, but I’ve been around for a while and I know how hard it is just to get to 90 percent in a relationship.' I guess I was like a marriage counselor.”
Johnson says that meeting really did change their lives. “For me, it comes down to respect and trust. I think Chad and I always respected each other. I know I always respected his ability to build fast race cars, and I believe he always respected my ability to drive. But I don’t know that we trusted each other as much as we needed to in those early days. I don’t know that we felt like the other person was always being completely honest.”
The meeting opened those channels. “We have had a lot of painful conversations,” Knaus said. “Nothing is out of bounds. We have had fights about attitude, work ethic, dedication, tough things like that. I think we can to realize that it’s OK to ask hard questions if you believe the answer you’re going to get.”
Knaus handles everything about the mechanics of the car — Johnson admits he knows almost nothing about the way the car is set up for any given race (Knaus says you can take “almost” out of the equation; Johnson knows absolutely nothing about the setup). Meanwhile, Johnson handles the car itself. He is constantly telling Knaus how the car FEELS as he drives it. Knaus admits being astonished at Johnson’s feel for a race car; he believes it is utterly unmatched.
And, together, they win championships like no one in the history of stock car racing.
* * *
When you ask Chad Knaus to describe the hardest part of working with Jimmie Johnson, he says this: “Jimmie’s just such a nice guy.”
“He doesn’t race dirty,” Knaus says. “He doesn’t get aggravated. I get mad because I’m more aggressive. If I see someone not racing him the way I would like, I get ticked off. I’m like, ‘Wreck him, Dude.’ Well, that’s what I want to say. But he wouldn’t do it if he had to. He’s not that kind of guy. He’s just a super, super nice fella.”
When you ask Jimmie Johnson to describe the hardest part of working with Knaus, he points out Chad’s almost insatiable standards. “Chad never stops,” he says. “I feel like I have a very high standards too, but Chad is off the charts.”
And, those strengths and flaws fit together. During the week, Knaus doesn’t stop. He gets to the shop at 6:30 every morning, before anyone else, and he leaves after everyone else is gone, and he never lets up for a minute. He admits that he loves when he finds a spot on the floor of the garage and gets someone to clean it up. He enjoys walking up to people at down moments and barking, “Are you as focused as you can be right now?” Even when he gets home at 10 or 11 at night, he continues to work -- on his computer, on scrap paper or just staring at the ceiling. “My mind is always churning. I can’t help it,” he says. “I’m always working. That’s good and bad. It’s why I’m still single, how about that?”
“Chad has such high expectations for everyone around him,” Hendrick says. “I’ve told him that if everyone worked as hard as he did, they would all be crew chiefs. I think that helped him relax a little bit.”
Then, on the weekend, when it’s time to race, Johnson’s calm takes over. There never seems a situation that throws him, never a problem that knocks him off balance, never a deficit that feels insurmountable. While Knaus leads by sheer will, Johnson is just such a nice guy that everyone on the team wants to perform well so that he can win.
“I wish I could tell you that I knew the team was going to be this good,” Hendrick says. “But I didn’t. Chad has become one of the best crew chiefs in the history of our sport. Jimmie has become one of the best drivers in the history of our sport. I’m not smart enough to have predicted that. But it has been amazing to watch.”
* * *
“Everything is about the trophies,” Knaus is saying now as he sits in his perfectly organized office. We are talking about what drives him and Johnson, what motivates them now. They have won six championships. They have dominated the sport. What’s left? Records? Yes, one more championship, and they will tie Dale Earnhart and Richard Petty for most in the history of NASCAR. They move up the charts of most victories.
But you get the sense that doesn’t really drive either of them. Not exactly.
“It’s all about winning another trophy,” Knaus says. “As soon at the confetti falls and the fireworks stop, that’s it. Next trophy. Let’s go win the next trophy.”
I tell Knaus that sounds odd, since he doesn’t even keep the trophies. He puts them in boxes and puts them in storage somewhere. He shakes his head. It’s not about HAVING the trophies. It’s about winning them. Those are two very different things.
“Besides,” he says. “They’re hard to clean.”