Monday, April 10, 2017

Right Sides Only: Notes from the O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 Winning Crew Chief, Chad Knaus

by Stacey Owens

Seven. People consider it a lucky number. Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time champion, however, hasn't had much luck lately. With no race wins and no stage wins going into the seventh race of the season, many people didn't expect him to do well. Despite his dominance in the final practice, many counted him out after his spin in qualifying, which sent him to the end of the field. Remember, though, that seven is considered a lucky number. So in the seventh race of the season, Jimmie Johnson claimed his seventh victory at Texas Motor Speedway.

One person who never counts out Johnson is his crew chief, Chad Knaus, who wasn't at all concerned about the team's lack of wins going into the O'Reilly Auto Parts 500.

"Jimmie is obviously amazing. There's no doubt about that. I would never, ever downplay the ability of Jimmie," Knaus said.

"I think that we have been a bit behind, but not a lot. It's amazing how much a small adjustment can change what it is that you need to do. You know, I can't speak too much on behalf of the 88 completely. I know that we've worked really hard this week, Greg and I did, to get our race cars closer together, better prepared to come to the racetrack, but honestly, if you go back and you look at Atlanta, man, we're one pit road speeding penalty away from running in the top five. If you go to California, you don't wreck on your third lap, you've got a much better race car than racing in your backup car. Las Vegas, same thing; little bit of bad pit stop, pit road speeding penalty takes you out of the top five. So I don't think that we're necessarily as far off as what people might say or might have thought, but we did need to improve, and we did.
           
"The other thing you have to realize is once we check out, and we go out to that West Coast swing, it's very difficult to make improvements on your race car because just, quite frankly, you're not there. We don't get to see them. We don't get to work on them, and we don't get our hands on them. So it's a challenge. So getting back to Charlotte, leading up to Martinsville, and then after Martinsville, gave us an opportunity to work on our race cars and make them better," Knaus explained.
Credit: Lisa Janine Cloud for Skirts and Scuffs

Even after making their cars better, the team still had a bit of the unknown heading into Texas. The track was recently repaved and re-profiled, so it wasn't the same old track on which Johnson had won six previous races. What did Knaus think about all the changes?

"It was a challenge for sure, obviously coming here with a tire that was unknown to us, and I think Goodyear did an absolutely amazing job picking and determining what tire we needed to bring here," Knaus said. "The track surface obviously an unknown, and then just the topography of the track completely new and unique to, honestly, any racetrack we've got in the series right now.
 
"Coming here we knew that it was going to be a challenge. We didn't have any data from the racetrack. We didn't know how to set up our simulation, so we had to do a lot of it kind of old school. It really worked out well.
           
"Was very impressed with the way the racetrack began to take rubber, very impressed with the way NASCAR and everybody here at Texas Motor Speedway worked throughout the course of the night to get the groove widened out, and the track really got pretty racy there at the end. I think we saw some guys on the outside be able to maintain their position or even take the lead on restarts there towards the middle portion of the race and then to the end. It was a good weekend. It was a lot of fun to be able to come out here and race with this new racetrack."
 
The last time Johnson won a race, he came from the last starting position to win at Homestead, ultimately winning his historic seventh championship. After spinning in qualifying at Texas, he was again relegated to the last place on the grid to start. And again, he fought his way through traffic to claim a victory. Knaus talked about his driver's day.

"Yeah, we honestly felt we had a good race car all weekend long. [The] Lowe's Chevrolet came off the truck really pretty good. He was very comfortable with the race car, which was very encouraging throughout the whole weekend. It's unfortunate that we spun out qualifying for sure. I think we would have qualified in the top 12, no problem.
           
"But to come from the back, we knew it was going to be a challenge, but we did have the opportunity yesterday to get into some traffic and then pass some cars or at least follow right behind them, and he was very complimentary of the race car yesterday, so at that point I felt -- I was like, okay, we'll be able to get up there and navigate through the first 15 cars, let's say, and try to get into the top 15. And then it happened in pretty short order. So I was pretty pleased with that.
           
"The thing that changes that people don't understand is once you get yourself up into that top-10, top-five range, the handling characteristics of a race car significantly change, and to be able to tune your car to stay up there, you have to stay up there. And if you fall back in traffic after you've made an adjustment to your race car so it can go faster up front, it can really be a problem, and you never get back up front. So we had to kind of tiptoe our way through until we felt like the car was where Jimmie wanted it, and the track was really starting to widen out.
           
"But man, I guess we had that pit stop about 180-something-ish, I don't remember exactly the number right now, and Jimmie was very, very complimentary of the race car. From that point on, it was gangbusters," Knaus explained.
Credit: Lisa Janine Cloud for Skirts and Scuffs

With the changes made to the track, it was almost like visiting a brand new track.

"It's pretty cool, right? I enjoyed it for sure," Knaus said. "Some of my engineers didn't enjoy it a heck of a lot because they're numbers guys. They want to know exactly what's going on and how to tune the car.  It's challenging for everybody, but honestly, it was a lot of fun for us this weekend.
           
"I love going to new racetracks. I think it's fun. I think it's a challenge for everybody, especially when you throw in things like a different tire and different race strategies and different race cars, because these cars are completely different than last year, so there's a lot of unknowns coming in here. I enjoyed it. I had a great time, obviously."

Knaus is having a great time. Johnson is winning. Sounds a lot like last year, doesn't it? And we all know how last year ended.

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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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