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CONCORD, N.C. -- OK, who took Rick Hendrick and Chad Knaus during the NASCAR media tour and what do you plan on doing with them?
Wednesday afternoon's stop at Hendrick Motorsports was like a trip to the fictional town Santa Mira, Calif., made famous in the science fiction novel "The Body Snatchers" by Jack Finney in which sleeping people were replaced by perfect physical duplicates.
On one side of the room was Hendrick all but guaranteeing one of his Sprint Cup drivers will give him an 11th championship. On the other side was a relaxed Knaus, saying he wasn't haunted that his No. 48 team all but gave away the 2012 title.
Really? A few years ago, Hendrick was more conservative with his preseason predictions than U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts is with his rulings. A few years ago, Knaus would have spent the entire offseason beating himself up for letting the championship slip away to Brad Keselowski.
|Rick Hendrick and the boys -- four-time champ Jeff Gordon and five-time champ Jimmie Johnson included -- enter the 2013 season brimming with confidence.|
What happened to them? Hendrick was tossing one-liners left and right, offering driver Kasey Kahne $20 to "go finish your haircut," and referred to himself as a 60-year-old (actually 63) with the body of a 70-year-old.
Knaus was laughing about what a "pain in the ass" he can be and was almost apologetic for how much fun he and Jimmie Johnson's team have had since the end of last season.
Maybe the older you get, the more comfortable you are being yourself. Hendrick basically confirmed that was the case for him late last year at an art gallery showing of Johnson's book, saying the older he gets, the less he stresses over what people say about him.
Regardless of what brought on this transformation. it's good to see Hendrick and Knaus enjoy the spoils of their success. One of the saddest things in sports -- in life -- is watching individuals so wrapped up in getting to the top that they don't enjoy the ride there.
There have been times when Knaus looked absolutely miserable trying to achieve the perfection that led to five straight titles from 2006 to 2010. There have been times when Hendrick was so worried about how he or his organization was perceived that it overshadowed the greatness he has accomplished.
Now both are as open as Lance Armstrong on the Oprah Winfrey Network.
"Last year, he kind of shocked all of us by throwing down the gauntlet that all four cars would be in the Chase," four-time champion Jeff Gordon, who made that happen by slipping in at the regular-season finale, said of his boss. "That was a lot of pressure. Rick typically in the past has been a guy that didn't make those kinds of demands."
And Knaus in the past typically would have driven himself crazy after a pit-road penalty for a missing lug nut and pinhole fracture of an oil line in the season finale turned a win and likely sixth title into a missed opportunity.
Instead, he sounded amazingly philosophical as he discussed how the communication and performance of the team was better than he had than during any of his five titles.
"We can't sit back and reflect on the bad things and negatives," Knaus said. "If you do that, you're just going to beat yourself to death."
It would have been easy to do. Had the final race played out in the 48 team's favor, Johnson would have moved within one title of Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty in Cup championships (seven). That Knaus will admit, just not begrudgingly.
"It was going to be very difficult for them to ... they were going to have to make something happen," Knaus said of Keselowski's team. "I think we could have won had that not happened, but it is what it is."
He was so nonchalant, it was scary.
"You get a little older, you understand more," Knaus said. "I know we've got quite a few more years to try to win championships. To lose our head and blow whatever time it is we do have off, being upset or disgusted over the performance of last year or ending result, there's no benefit to that."
Welcome to Santa Mira ... North Carolina?
But there's a reason for this that goes beyond age. It comes from years of preparation, of building an organization that is ready to handle any and all challenges.
Hendrick noticed that in a Tuesday meeting with his crew chiefs as they discussed where they were with the "Gen 6" car. There was no sense of panic. Everybody was working together.
"They're clicking," Hendrick said. "This is a tough sport. There's a lot of talent out there. They all have good equipment. It's going to come down to who has the breaks and hits it right.
"But I don't know if any organization has better chemistry than we do between our four [drivers]."
In other words, the rest of the garage should beware.
That hasn't changed.