Monday, November 9, 2015

Right Sides Only: Notes from AAA Texas 500 Winning Crew Chief, Chad Knaus

Spoil: to diminish or impair the quality of; affect detrimentally. 

That about sums up what Jimmie Johnson and crew chief, Chad Knaus, did to seven other teams at Texas Motor Speedway this weekend.

Johnson's hunt for a seventh championship came to a screeching halt with a five dollar mechanical failure at Dover, but he didn't let that stop him in his quest to sweep both Texas races this season, much to the dismay of other drivers looking to lock their places in the season-ending finale at Homestead.

For his part, Knaus was the first one to say he really had no expectations.

"It was really interesting, obviously. We didn't know exactly what we were going to have due to the lack of practice. We went into it with a lot of unknowns. As people started to have some tire failures, we saw some of it in the XFINITY race yesterday. It's kind of typical here until the track rubbers up.
            
"We didn't really know what to expect. Initially we took off, the car was really, really tight for us. We made some big swings to try to free it up. We were able to move back towards the front a little bit. We had a huge transition and the car started to loosen up for us again, so we had to tighten it back up.
            
"We kind of played back and forth depending upon where we were running on the racetrack, what position we were, clean air versus dirty air, green flag versus caution flag.
Credit: Debbie Ross for Skirts and Scuffs
           
"Jimmie and the team did a great job. We made huge changes on the racecar today throughout the pit stops. Our guys did a really good job. The guys that prepare the car were jumping over the wall, making changes. Other guys were changing the tires. There was a lot of activity. The guys really worked hard for it.

"For not having any race practice, I'm really proud of what these guys were able to do today," Knaus said.

A win during the Chase would be considered an accomplishment for most non-Chase teams. For the No. 48 team, however, a win feels overdue. 

It had been 20 races since Johnson and Company last visited Victory Lane. The summer belonged to Joe Gibbs Racing, and the post-season has been dominated by Team Penske. 

How does Knaus feel about being back where the team has now found itself 75 times?

"Look, you got to be honest. It's been a tough last three months," he said. "The beginning of the year was pretty damn good, to be honest with you. But we've worked hard. We tried to figure out what was going on, battling different aero packages, different things. The summer slump that the 48 typically goes through -- it's been a bit of a challenge. We'd be in the middle of this championship Chase if it wasn't for a small mechanical problem.
            
"That being said, I feel like we've run the last six weeks, Martinsville being the track we ran the worst at, which is really odd. We haven't been able to post the finishes.
            
"To be able to come out of here today with the win, to be able to race for it the way we did, I think it speaks volumes about where the 48 is, the no-give-up attitude that we've got.
            
"As far as me, yeah, it feels great. I like it. I don't want it to take that long before I get back here," Knaus said.

Johnson only led six laps on his way to the checkered flag. Brad Keselowski dominated the afternoon before Johnson passed him and marred any hopes the No. 2 team had of punching their ticket to Homestead.

Many teams had trouble early in the race with tire wear, including Keselowski's teammate, Joey Logano. Did Knaus have any concerns that his driver would have any of those tire issues?

"I was kind of prepared for it. This track does that a lot. So we were pretty conservative on our settings knowing we didn't get any race trim practice to make sure we wouldn't have a problem. Thankfully we really didn't [have any problems]," Knaus explained.

Tires issues aside, the final 10 races are tough for crew chiefs.
 
"It's a challenge. It's an emotional challenge, for sure," he said. "Honestly, the driver actually has it the best because he gets in there and he kind of gets in a little (indiscernible) and he's active for the three, four hours that you're driving. He really doesn't have the residual effects of, gosh, I hope we got the right shocks, hope we got this tight, that tight, things of that nature. On a crew chief it's grueling. It's really, really tough.
            
"But that being said, that's why we do it. We like that. That's the thrill. That's the challenge."

The win in Texas was Johnson's sixth at the track. Similarly, Johnson has been prolific at a few other tracks, including Dover and Charlotte. Is repeated success because of a driver's ability or because his crew chief has mastered some specific characteristic of the track?

"It's all crew chief," Knaus quipped. "No, it's a combination of both, quite honestly. Things change. The tracks change a lot. Charlotte Motor Speedway, for instance, we won I don't know how many races, we won a bunch of them, they repaved the racetrack. We lost. We're starting to slowly get it back.

"Martinsville is a challenge since they've changed some of the stuff. We've had difficulty getting back on top of it the way we need to.
            
"Texas is one of those racetracks that fits Jimmie's style. We've taken horsepower away from the cars, we've added downforce, done a lot of these things. It's been tough for us to get on top of where we actually need to be because a lot of the tracks, honestly you don't have to handle that good, you don't have to be able to drive that well to run up front.
           
"Texas is where you have to have a hell of a driver to make it happen. Atlanta, Chicago, places like that, Kansas, for instance. You really have to be on your game to be able to run well at those tracks.
            
"This falls into Jimmie's wheelhouse. What helps us is Jimmie needs to be able to drive the racecar.  When you drive it, you have to be able to communicate with your crew chief. That's what Jimmie does. He speaks to us in a language we understand at these types of racetracks. That makes better racing for us," Knaus explained.
Credit: Debbie Ross for Skirts and Scuffs
Johnson and Knaus have one more opportunity to spoil Chase drivers' chances to lock up positions for Homestead as teams head west to Phoenix. Of course, both of them would rather be competing for a championship rather than seeking to make things difficult for others. They know they would still be in the hunt had they not had major issues.
 
"Look, we did it to ourselves. Let's be honest. We did it to ourselves. I don't want to say we slacked, but we stunk up the summer 100%. It was horrible, pathetic. Then we come into the Chase, we're running pretty good. We ran well at Chicago, we ran well at New Hampshire. New Hampshire we had a problem, came back and finished well. Chicago we had a solid run. I'm sure we had something wrong there, too. Stacking up the problems we had throughout the course of the season, you get written off.
            
"Man, this is a tough sport: 39 events, 39 weeks we race with 43 of the best teams in racing. It's tough. It only takes one or two little things to make you feel like you're out of it.
           
"I can tell you, my guys are strong. We've got a group of guys that have never been better. Our pit crew is the best it's been. We brought in three new engineers this year. You would think from the onset that we should have been behind the eight ball. Unfortunately we came out strong, so everybody was like, 'They're great, they're awesome.' But there's still a learning curve you have to go through.


"I think coming into 2016 it's going to be right where we need to be, especially with these new rules.  I can't wait," Knaus said.

Though they didn't have the dominant car, Knaus knew with Johnson's record at TMS that he could win if had track position, so he had the crew make some small adjustments to the car near the end of the race.   

"The car was pretty good the run leading up to that, so we kind of had a basis of where the car was.  We made some small adjustments right there to be pretty aggressive, to try to make something happen.
            
"Look, let's be honest, in the position we're in, if we finish fifth or second, does it matter? Not really. You've got to go for the win.
            
"We made some changes there, let Jimmie light the fuse, put on his cape and go after it," Knaus explained.

Jimmie Johnson may not actually be Superman, but he definitely looked the part as he flew past Keselowski to take the win on Sunday saying, "It's been a long, dry summer. Glad I found the cape. Wasn't too dusty or too far away."

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   Stacey Owens lives just outside Music City USA. She's always wanted to be a NASCAR writer, so working as a columnist and support editor for Skirts and Scuffs allows her to live that dream every single weekend.
    The sole NASCAR enthusiast in her home, she's hopeful that one of her three daughters might also harbor an appreciation for NASCAR, but it isn't looking good so far.
    Her other interests include country music, though she can't carry a tune; collegiate football, though she needs a lot of work on her spiral; and Kentucky basketball, even though at 6' tall, she's never played a day in her life.

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