Sunday, November 29, 2009
Updated: November 30, 12:45 PM ET
Knaus: 'This is my time'
By David Newton
Chad Knaus was trying to put into perspective what it meant to win a record four straight Sprint Cup championships following the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway when he uttered the words that were heard around the world.
"I hope that 10 years from now, when I'm sitting on my patio retired with my son or daughter or my wife or whatever is going on there, I can sit back and reflect and look at photographs," the crew chief said after he and driver Jimmie Johnson set history just over a week ago.
OK, the words were heard only around the Homestead media center and likely were repeated around the garage. But they raised a few eyebrows, including those of Johnson, who followed them with a question.
Actually, three questions in one.
"Retired, son and daughter?" he said, barely able to contain his laughter. "You have a lot to do in 10 years, buddy."
The rest of the room laughed with Johnson and made light of the dream-world scenario the remainder of the news conference.
Knaus isn't married, although he was engaged to Bruna Oliveira until they broke things off late last season. Unless there is more to the relationship with his current girlfriend, Lisa Rockelmann, he has no immediate plans to wed.
He also has no children.
"It's all coming, man," Knaus told Johnson. "It's all coming. This is my time."
This indeed is Knaus' time. He is on track to become one of the greatest crew chiefs of all time, perhaps the greatest. In eight seasons with Johnson, he has four championships, two seconds and no finish outside the top five.
He has no plans to slow down, either. Team owner Rick Hendrick said Knaus has told him he wants to remain Johnson's crew chief for at least five more years
"He was talking to me by text [the night they won the title] and he already was talking about 2010 and things he wanted to do," Hendrick said. "I thought, 'Man, go out and celebrate this one.'"
That's why Johnson was so amused by Knaus' comments. That's why everyone in the room was.
That's why potential brides should be wary.
Knaus, 38, is married to the No. 48 team. The only thing he seemingly has time to reproduce is more cars. He eats, sleeps and drinks racing arguably more than anybody in the garage.
His day typically begins around 5:30 a.m. and ends sometime in the early evening. He doesn't have a scheduled day off and doesn't want one, although he knows how to have fun from time to time.
"Chad would be bored doing anything else," Hendrick said. "He spends 20 hours a day, seven days a week planning for the future."
Knaus doesn't necessarily outthink all the competition as much as he outworks and outprepares them, whether it's an ingenious way around NASCAR's gray areas or planning a kickball game with crew members to analyze their competitive nature.
In many ways he's a clone of Ray Evernham, who won three championships in four years with Jeff Gordon from 1995 to 1998. Evernham was so obsessed with perfection as a crew chief that he had time for hardly anything else in his life.
He was the same way as a team owner until he woke up one day and realized there must be more to life.
"Or just have a nervous breakdown or whatever it was," said Evernham, who in 2007 sold majority interest of Evernham Motorsports and began paying more attention to his personal life. "This job, it wears you out. You put so much into it, and I didn't know how to pace myself."
You do it, Evernham added, "until there is nothing left."
Evernham saw that drive in Knaus in 1992 when he interviewed him to be a tire changer for Gordon and the original "Rainbow Warriors."
|Power trio: Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus and Rick Hendrick have entered uncharted territory with four consecutive Cup championships.|
"I asked him, 'Where do you want to be in five years?'" Evernham recalled. "And he said, 'I want your job.' So I hired him. That's the kind of guy I wanted."
Evernham thought that was "cool." He never interviewed another person who was so brash and ambitious.
So he knows as much as anybody how Knaus ticks.
"Chad does nothing but work on that race car," Evernham said. "He's got some really nice cars of his own, but go ask him how many miles he put on 'em. They're probably all like mine. I've got cars that I won with Rick that I've probably put 3,000 miles on in 10 years."
Will Knaus have an Evernham-like moment where he realizes there's more to life than winning races and championships? Will there come a day when he desires a family of his own?
Probably. It may come sooner than anybody knows. Just listen to Knaus talk about Hendrick, how the man he respects more than anybody puts family first.
"That's why he wasn't able to be here tonight," said Knaus, referring to Hendrick's missing the championship celebration to be in North Carolina as his 29-year-old niece underwent an emergency liver transplant. "We all respect that and understand it, and I hope everybody else does, too.
"It's unfortunate that he wasn't here, but he truly understands what the meaning of life is, and that's family."
Knaus doesn't have much family outside of Hendrick Motorsports. He left what he had after high school to relocate from Rockford, Ill., where at the age of 14 he was the championship crew chief for his father, to North Carolina because he wanted to build cars and win titles.
He left HMS in 1997 because he didn't want to wait for Evernham's job. He went to Dale Earnhardt Inc. as a car chief for Steve Park and later Darrell Waltrip.
He moved to Melling Racing during the '98 season to lead Dodge's comeback into NASCAR with Evernham, by then a team owner.
Before the 2002 season, he was introduced to Johnson, who was ready to embark on his rookie year.
"When we left [the initial meeting] it was amazing how much time had passed and how well we connected," Johnson said. "I don't think we knew much about each other before that, but we felt like there was a bond there and something we wanted to build on."
They've done more than build. They've engineered one of the greatest teams in the sport's history, winning four titles faster than Gordon or seven-time champions Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty.
|When Chad Knaus talks ... Jimmie Johnson listens.|
They've set a standard that the rest of the garage can't seem to match.
But perhaps more important, they've done it at a pace that hasn't burned out the driver or the crew chief. Ask either what more they want out of life and neither comes up with a good answer other than what they are doing now.
"They just had 'Dancing With the Stars' on," Knaus said jokingly as he glanced at a television set in the media center. "That looked kind of fun. I don't know, man. I don't know what I'm going to do when I grew up. I hope I never grow up. I love my job."
Let's hope Knaus is smart enough to avoid "Dancing With the Stars." We know he's smart enough to know he can't continue at this pace for 10 more years, which is likely why he asked Hendrick to remain Johnson's crew chief for just five more years.
"It's impossible," Knaus said. "But I love what I do. I have yet to get out of bed in the morning and not want to go to work. ... In the future, we're just going to have to wait and see."
In the meantime, Knaus doesn't want to miss anything in the present. He purchased a video camera before the banquet in New York City a year ago to document the champion's celebration.
He took it with him to Homestead and asked that one of his engineers give it to him when the title appeared inevitable.
"Five laps to go, he walked up and he handed it to me," Knaus said. "I wanted to record it because ... I don't enjoy what we do enough in the moment typically, and I don't do a good job of keeping records and memorabilia and things like that.
"I knew this was going to be a big deal and I wanted to be able to have something to remember it by, because even through all of the stuff that's going on, and it's a bit of a whirlwind, you forget."
He'll take the camera to the banquet in Las Vegas this week as well.
One day 10 years from now, as hard as it was for Johnson or any of us to believe, he'll want to enjoy it with a wife and kids.
I asked him, 'Where do you want to be in five years?' And he said, 'I want your job.' So I hired him. That's the kind of guy I wanted.
-- Ray Evernham on Chad Knaus
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.