Random Lugnuts: Chad Knaus
Topics: Chad Knaus What is Random Lugnuts? It's random bits of stock car racing commentary written on an irregular basis by an irregular racing fan. The name is a reference to the lugnuts that go flying off a car during a pit stop: you never know where they are going to go, what they're going to do when they get there, they can be annoying, they're often useless after a race, and every once in a while someone gets hit and they don't know exactly where it came from.
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October 27, 2009
Richard Petty only won 8 races in my lifetime. Dale Earnhardt won his last championship just before my 14th birthday, and I was too busy getting adjusted to high school and playing freshman football to notice. I feel like I missed out, listening to older guys recall the stories of Petty and Earnhardt. I hoped one day I'd get a chance to tell my son about the greatest of my time in the same way. But instead of King Richard or The Intimidator, I get Jimmie Johnson. A guy so bland and personalityless that he's yet to acquire a good nickname. He's been called a lot of names, but that's not the same thing.
Outside of a series of fairly funny Kobalt Tools commercials, Johnson comes across the television as a talking press release in race broadcasts. Even this season, as he's grown a little facial hair, I wonder if it wasn't a calculated decision by some marketing executive to improve his image. He never does anything flashy or spectacular but he certainly doesn't make mistakes, and it's more than just his personality at the track: his driving is the same. Like Iceman in Top Gun, he's prone to neither flashes of brilliance or idiotic mistakes, simply providing a steady level of mistake-free top-level performance that has become the standard by which all others can be judged. He's just not very likeable while doing it.
Not making mistakes doesn't seem to be the sort of thing that should win championships, especially as he's closing in on his record fourth in a row. How does this happen? I imagine a lot of guys can run a mistake-free 35th place race. But when Hendrick Motorsports, and Chad Knaus in particular, are responsible for building the car, keeping it off the walls seems to be all it takes to collect an impressive amount of trophies.
Of course I took an interest in Chad when the 48 team started winning races. Northern Illinois hasn't exactly produced a whole lot of NASCAR champions in the past, and Chad is from Rockford, just a couple counties west of my home. On that alone, he's noteworthy, at least to a guy from Schaumburg and Woodstock. I've even met his father, John, at Rockford Speedway.
After becoming a champion crew chief at age 14 (working for his father at Rockford Speedway), he worked his way up the NASCAR ladder, going from fab shop to managing the chassis and body program for Hendrick Motorsports' 24 team while serving as a tire changer on the famed Rainbow Warriors pit crew. Unlike the safe and reliable Johnson, Knaus has pushed the envelope and occasionally been slapped on the hand by NASCAR for doing so. Getting caught has earned him the label of "cheater" from his detractors but his successes has earned him the nickname "The Magician" and a combination of both have earned him the nickname "Little Ray" (in reference to Ray Evernham).
Chad Knaus is a guy who can, in the course of four hundred and fifty miles or so, adjust a middle-of-the-pack car into a winner time and time again. Races are often won and lost on the decisions made at the last pit stop of the day. Chad has put Jimmie in a position to win more times than I can count, and has worked that magic so many times over the years that it was worth discussing on the broadcast a few weeks ago when he made, what is for him, a very rare mistake in calling for the wrong number of tires on a car. It stands as testament to his ability that the rare mistake becomes a noteworthy event.
Of course, just as Jimmie can't take all the credit for three (maybe four) championships in a row, Chad Knaus can't either. Perhaps another driver, one with a bit more talent but a little less patience (Kyle Busch comes to mind) might have pulled off a few wins Jimmie couldn't, but probably would have also parked a few of Chad's masterpieces into concrete walls in the process. Perhaps another driver wouldn't be able to give Knaus the information he needs to make those mid-race adjustments that always seem to put the 48 near the front by the time the checkered flag falls. But, if the two were ever separated, Johnson would be hard pressed to find another crew chief with the knowledge and talent of Knaus, while Knaus should have an easier time finding a driver who can keep his cars off the wall while going faster than the rest of the field.
Of course, the difference between a pile of impressive statistics and a guy you remember to tell your kids about is the memories. I'll always remember after last year's championship-winning race at Homestead, while the rest of the crew was in full celebration mode Chad was clutching his notebook close to him. When others might have flung the notebook skyward in jubilance and let the papers flutter down like confetti, he held his notes like a drowning man to a lifejacket, knowing that another season was just a few months away and he couldn't just let anyone on pit road see The Magician's spellbook.
I suppose the crew chief is equivalent to the head coach on the football sidelines or on a hockey bench, and while players usually get to take most of the glory (they are, after all, the ones who score the winning points), I hope someday fans see past NASCAR's driver-centered tradition and Chad Knaus receives the credit he is due for this incredible championship run. Heck, NASCAR's got a Hall of Fame now, so we can start throwing around terms like "first-ballot inductee" about guys that are still racing, and I think that Chad Knaus is headed in that direction if he's not already there. Perhaps one day, he can even take his place among the greats of sport who won championships from the sidelines, like Vince Lombardi or Herb Brooks or Phil Jackson.
Hopefully in a few years' time I'll be able to take my son to Rockford Speedway. I can tell him how the greatest crew chief of our time, perhaps the greatest of all time in NASCAR, got his start right there, an hours' drive from our home. Maybe John Knaus will still be racing.
|2004 Checker Auto Parts 500
Photo by Brian Cantoni
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