Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Right Sides Only: Notes from the Food City 500 Winning Crew Chief, Chad Knaus

by Stacey Owens

What do you get when you cross an off-weekend with a rain delay and a new track surface? In this case, you get the 82nd win from Jimmie Johnson.

Crew chief Chad Knaus talked about the team's win in Texas followed by the week of rest and how those elements combined to make this weekend fun.

"It was a fantastic weekend. It was great. We had a lot of fun. After securing a win last week, it obviously takes a huge load off of your shoulders, and being able to come in here this week confident, relaxed, we had a weekend off, we really came in showing that the track was going to be significantly different with the way they applied the traction compound on the bottom of the racetrack, and we knew we were going to be chasing it, so coming in here with a preconceived idea of what it was that we were going to need to have on the race car was really not what we needed to do, and we didn't," Knaus said.

The weather wreaked havoc on every team and made it difficult to make decisions as teams unloaded on Friday afternoon. The weather wasn't the only culprit in throwing a wrench into crew chiefs' plans, though. The track surface at Bristol Motor Speedway is new. Not new as in just repaved, like Texas, but new as in having had a sticky substance called VHT applied to the racing groove.

So, how did Knaus and Johnson approach the weekend?
           
"We had a very open approach. Jimmie had an open approach. He had to adjust and change some things that he was doing. We had to change the way that we were setting up the race car, and man, Saturday afternoon it was really nice to see what we had going on, so it was a lot of fun. We had a great time. It was a great weekend. I think, again, hats off to the -- it doesn't always work, but man, this place, they do everything they can to try to put on a fantastic show for the fans, and they did it today. That was a fun race to watch and a fun race to take part in," Knaus explained.

Knaus said that the key to making adjustments relative to the track surface was that every other crew chief was in the same situation.

"I think what helped us the most this weekend is that everybody else was lost. I don't know if that makes sense or not. But you didn't have a standout at our company that was maybe the car that you needed to pay attention to that was really fast, so you kind of look at their notes and look at what it is that they do. We just stepped back, there was a lot of frustration from Jimmie, honestly, after midway through the first practice session... And we were able to just be like, look, let's just do what conceptually we think is correct, and we threw a lot of the convention away from it that we had done in the past and we had seen in the past work, and just made some things happen.
           
"Now, the thing that's difficult is he [Johnson] drives a race car way different than other people do, and what he likes to feel in the race car is significantly different than what a lot of other drivers like to have. The track surface being the way that it was I think is exactly what we needed because everybody was searching, people were sliding all over the racetrack, they were complaining and nobody was really in a comfortable state of mind, and that's when I think the 48 team excels is when there's chaos. I think between Jimmie's experience, his driving ability and what we can do with the race car, that's what we excel," Knaus explained.

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Does Knaus alter his strategy based on what his driver can do behind the wheel? Yes. He talked about the impact that Johnson's ability and his communication about the car's performance have on his decision-making.

"It's huge. The driver inputs in these race cars are -- the box that we operate in now is so tight and narrow that the inputs that the drivers use are what change the pitch, the heave, the roll, the longitudinal, lateral movement of the race car. What they do is really key. Jimmie uses all of his tools very, very well. He drives with feel. He's not a guy that says, 'Okay, this is the fastest line, and that's the way I'm going to get around the racetrack.' I've tried for years to get him to drive like that, and he won't do it. He's a driver that wants to adjust, manipulate the car with his inputs, and that's great. That's what makes him such a fantastic driver. So paying attention to what he says is a very, very important part of getting the most out of your race car.

           
"Again, that's why coming in here this weekend with an open mind, even though frustration did come in a little bit, that's what allowed us to get the car as what it was today, and I think our car was great.  I saw him be able to do some things with the race car that we haven't been able to do with our cars here in the past. Not just that it was fast but the way he was able to drive it, and all that was a direct result of what he was giving us for input," Knaus said.

When it comes down to it, the crew chief can only do so much. When asked about why the No. 48 was ultimately able to win, Knaus pointed to a number of reasons.

"You know, there were so many contributing factors. We had a fast race car. The car was solid.  Jimmie did a great job. Our pit crew, I think, today really helped us a lot. We were able to gain positions, maintain positions on pit road, get us into spots where we were able to actually restart up towards the front, and I think we saw the comers and goers really happen on restarts the most. So not that we always had the preferred line on a restart, but at least we were close enough to the front that when something bad happened, we didn't fall back. So the pit crew kept us in the game and allowed Jimmie to do what it was that he needed to do on the track. So I think that was one of the big, big factors where we were today," Knaus explained.

Knaus may not have taken much credit for the win, but Johnson was quick to extol the virtues of his crew chief.

"Chad did a great job of coaching me up and seeing through some of my animated descriptions and my frustration and really controlled the group. It didn't let my emotions affect his thought process, and he did a great job of calming me down and saying, look, this is changing, this is the situation, let's just keep working on it, we'll get it, we'll get it, and he really -- from an emotional standpoint and kind of mindset standpoint kept the wheels on the train, or I guess the train on the tracks," Johnson said.

With consecutive wins this season, it looks like the train isn't just staying on the tracks; it's left the station. Can anyone else catch them?

Find out as our coverage continues next weekend at Richmond International Raceway, starting with Travel Tips for all the information you'll need to plan a trip to the Virginia track.


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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.
    This self-admitted grammar nerd also loves country music, though she can't carry a tune; Kentucky basketball, even though at 6' tall, she's never played a day in her life; and her husband who's supportive of her NASCAR obsession and tunes in with her every week... even if it's just to watch the flyover.

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