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CONCORD, N.C. -- Chad Knaus was relaxed and laughing, almost giddy.
The two-week vacation Jimmie Johnson's crew chief spent in South Africa while his Sprint Cup team tested at Daytona International Speedway -- learning how the Atlantic and Indian oceans coming together impact cloud formations, what real poverty is like and how big a rhinoceros is compared to pictures in National Geographic -- was life-changing.
"Living in the United States, we're so confused by what reality is," Knaus said Wednesday during the NASCAR media stop at Hendrick Motorsports.
Knaus didn't have to travel to another continent to discover reality. He simply needed to step outside the confines of HMS, where trophies and championship banners dominate the decor, to the world of unsponsored race teams and layoffs.
|The last Hendrick Motorsports driver to visit Victory Lane was Jimmie Johnson, who won at Kansas Speedway on Oct. 9.|
He simply needed to reflect on last season, when his No. 48 team finished sixth in points after winning five straight Sprint Cup titles.
That's the reality most in NASCAR experience every day.
"For sure," Knaus admitted. "But definitely going over there and coming back here makes me realize we need to be thankful for what we've got, embrace it. Because if you embrace it and really get that reality check every once in a while, you're going to understand it, appreciate it more.
"And you're going to perform better."
Last season was a reality check for all of HMS. It was the first time since 2006 the organization didn't win the title, the first time since 2000 it won fewer than five races and the first time since 2000 it didn't have a driver finish in the top five in points.
And everyone is determined -- no, driven -- to perform better.
It starts at the top, where team owner Rick Hendrick was as outspoken as we've ever seen him about his team's prospects for an upcoming season.
"I usually hedge a little bit," Hendrick said. "This year I'm not. I'm going to be really disappointed if we don't have all four cars in the Chase. And I'm going to be really disappointed if we don't win the championship."
He should be. With much of the garage contracting due to a still-struggling economy, Hendrick has the only four-car team left in the series.
He has the most talented driver lineup with Johnson, four-time champion Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and newcomer Kasey Kahne.
And HMS has experienced less turnover than any organization.
We've spent the entire offseason documenting all the driver and crew chief changes, about 14 of them in all. Darian Grubb didn't survive with Tony Stewart despite winning the championship. Mike Ford didn't survive with Denny Hamlin a year after nearly winning the title, and he remains unemployed.
The list goes on and on.
But Hendrick has all of his crew chiefs back, with the addition of Kenny Francis coming over from Red Bull with Kahne.
It may be the strongest lineup ever for the owner who has more Cup championships (10) than any organization outside of Richard Petty Motorsports, which hasn't won a title since 1979.
So believing the teams of Earnhardt and Gordon will be stronger a year after making the Chase, knowing he has a "pissed-off 48 team" and a new team in Kahne and Francis with something to prove, Hendrick said, "That gives me confidence if we don't blow it up, we're going to be good."
|Crew chief Chad Knaus has a new perspective on life -- and his job -- after taking an offseason trip to South Africa.|
In other words, beware NASCAR.
And if you're looking for an early favorite to win the title for Hendrick, look no further than Johnson and Knaus. They have been together for 10 years, by far the longest current tenure in Cup. They have stuck together through thick and thin, although there's not much thin when you have five titles and 52 wins, and never have finished worse than sixth in points.
Sure, they've had moments when we thought it was all falling apart. After the 2005 season, Hendrick had to deliver the famous milk-and-cookies speech -- he actually sat them down like children with milk and cookies on plastic plates -- to keep them from parting.
There were a few moments last season when the relationship appeared in jeopardy, none more so than their heated exchange at New Hampshire.
"Dude, your cheerleading is terrible," Johnson radioed at one point. "I'm going to drive my ass off. Don't sweat it. Just watch."
Replied Knaus, "Prove it, baby. Come on."
"You're actually annoying instead of helping," Johnson said. "Just let me go out and do my thing."
The beauty of this relationship is they let each other do their own thing, understanding each does it well enough to make them the most dangerous combination in the sport.
That Knaus is relaxed and re-energized makes them an even bigger threat.
"I'm not going to say taking a trip re-energizes me and I found some golden orb down there that made it all worthwhile," Knaus said. "I will tell you that being able to unplug a little bit helps. It helps the mind. I'm not super familiar with that aspect of life.
"I'm ready. It's going to be a great season for us."
And, yes, Hendrick is right that the 48 team is "pissed off."
"Yeah, and we're pissed off at ourselves," said Johnson, referring to a mistake here and there that kept the team from winning a sixth straight title. "There could be a lot of good coming from this."
That's the reality Knaus has returned to. As relaxed as he is, to the point Hendrick was thinking "Where's the real Chad Knaus?" earlier in the day after the crew chief spent more time talking about Africa than racing, that's the reality Knaus needs -- wants.
"What's the second race of the year?" Johnson said. "The old Chad will be back. I certainly hope this calm, relaxed Chad is the guy we're going to see all season long, but I've got to chalk up 10 years of experience versus two weeks on vacation, and put the weight on the 10-year side."
And when weighing whether HMS will remain just another player versus being dominant, you have to put the weight on 10 titles in the past 16 years.
"We're all culturally trained to go out there and be successful," Knaus said. "When you're not successful, we've got to do something to react. It's not a sounding bell, rallying the troops. It's nothing like shock awareness.
"We just all know we need to do better. We're supposed to win races."
And they will.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.