LAS VEGAS — Rick Hendrick remembers the stress-filled days in 2001 when he was trying to launch a new team with an unproven driver.
He had an interested sponsor in Lowe’s, but wasn’t sure he could sell the company built around a 25-year-old nobody who had four top-five finishes in an underwhelming Nationwide Series career.
So Hendrick called in Jeff Gordon for help in sealing the deal on Jimmie Johnson, the driver Gordon had noticed on the track and brought to the team owner’s attention.
“I was scared to death when I went to talk to Lowe’s the first time about Jimmie – could he win?” Hendrick recalled. “We had to get Jeff to go make appearances for Lowe’s in the beginning. We were doing everything we had to do in the beginning to make that deal work.”
Lowe’s signed off on Johnson, and Hendrick pulled former Hendrick Motorsports mechanic Chad Knaus back into the organization for the crew chief job on the brand new No. 48 Chevrolet. Twelve seasons later, the duo was looking forward to collecting the hardware for their sixth championship in Friday night’s awards ceremony at Wynn Las Vegas.
“I don’t take any credit for it,” Hendrick said. “Sometimes it just happens. We were able to put something together that turned out to be lightning in a bottle.”
Johnson has won 66 races since Hendrick paired him with Knaus for the start of the 2002 season. They reeled off an unprecedented five consecutive Cup titles from 2006 through 2010, and after a two-year hiatus they captured No. 6 to put Johnson behind only Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt’s record seven titles.
“I know the pairing of us, there’s something magical there and it works,” Johnson said. “I say this confidently: I would not have the success I’ve had in this sport if it wasn’t for Chad and our relationship together.”
Knaus trails only Hall of Fame crew chief Dale Inman, who won eight championships – seven with Petty and one with Terry Labonte. He steadfastly refuses to compare himself to Inman, or consider where he might rank among NASCAR’s greatest crew chiefs.
“I’m not even close to what he’s done, so there’s no reason to even talk about that,” Knaus said. “I think Dale, until we get seven (championships), then maybe we can start to develop that parallel or draw those comparisons. But right now? No. Dale’s the man. He’s done some pretty impressive stuff.”
So have Johnson and Knaus. The duo has defied the odds in becoming the present-day version of Petty and Inman, who were cousins and worked on cars together as young boys.
Johnson and Knaus barely knew each other when Hendrick matched them. Knaus had spent five seasons in the organization and was part of two of Gordon’s championships before leaving in 1998 to advance above mechanic and fabricator.
Knaus ran Dodge’s development team for two seasons, then got the call to crew chief in 2001 for Stacy Compton.
Needing someone for the No. 48 team, the Hendrick hierarchy chose Knaus over two other candidates because he’d been convinced by vice president of competition Ken Howes that “Chad’s been here, he knows the system, he can work on the 48 and be good. So we said ‘OK, we’ll go with Chad.’ “
It’s not always been the smoothest relationship. The two were nearly separated by Hendrick because of their bickering during the failed 2005 run for a first championship.
Both driver and crew chief suffer from an unrelenting desire to win, and Knaus’ focus and attention to detail can often be suffocating. His commitment to the race team has come at the expense of Knaus’ personal life – he’s a bachelor, while Johnson is married with two daughters – and Knaus says “I can’t go minutes” without thinking about racing.
“I think everybody out there is about the same. I just know what I do,” he said.
Hendrick, who has four Cup crew chiefs in house, knows everybody is not like Knaus.
“Chad eats, sleeps and drinks this. I’ve never seen anybody any more committed or passionate about what they do than Chad is,” he said. “He is wired differently. He’s hard-wired. He’s on the gas harder than anyone. I worry about him burning out, that’s my biggest concern.”
It’s forced Johnson and Knaus to take an active role in nurturing their relationship, which ranks as the longest active driver and crew chief pairing in NASCAR. Hendrick said the two let nothing fester between them, addressing everything immediately and head-on, and that they’ve used professional help to understand how to best make their relationship succeed.
“I think we have a genuine care and love for one another,” Knaus said. “We have identified that when we do have issues, when we do have cross words, it’s not a personal thing. It’s because we want to go faster and we want to win races. It took years – years – to get that trust, but once we got to that point, it definitely opened up a lot of opportunity for us to truly be honest with one another and not hurt each other’s feelings.
“We are no different than any other relationship. You always have the honeymoon where everything is great, and we definitely had that. And then you go through a bit of a lull. If you can make it through that lull, things start to stabilize and grow like any good, healthy relationship.”