Originally created 08/08/06

Knaus romances Brickyard stone



INDIANAPOLIS - Chad Knaus was on a furious mission two weeks ago, trying to figure out where the tradition of kissing the Yard of Bricks at Indianapolis Motor Speedway began.

He called it lame and unoriginal, and swore his lips would never touch "that dirty old track."

But when driver Jimmie Johnson grabbed the checkered flag at the Brickyard, his crew chief was practically the first in line to pucker up.

"I admit it, I thought it was stupid and cheesy," Knaus sighed. "But you know what happened? With 10 laps to go and it was clear we were going to win that race, the only thing I was thinking about is how much I wanted to kiss those bricks."

Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team had been snake-bitten at Indy, a place where their past seasons began to fall apart.

It happened in 2004, when the motor failed on the No. 48 Chevrolet, causing Johnson to notch his first DNF of the season. He wound up 36th, and fell into a slump that cost him his points lead and ultimately the Nextel Cup championship.

Last season was even worse, with Johnson landing in the hospital after a hard wreck. He finished 38th and lost his points lead to Tony Stewart, who went on to win the championship.

So past history and a subpar test session had the team bracing for another disaster Saturday.

And as the day began, it looked they were exactly right.

The batteries were dead in Johnson's radio when he climbed into his car.

Then he got a flat tire early in the race that dropped him back to 38th. And as he pulled away after the tire change, a fire broke out in his pit.

Even after overcoming all of that to grab the lead, a caution for debris with 19 laps cost him his track position.

But he deftly maneuvered around the cars in front of him, picking them off until he was back in front with 10 to go.

That's when Knaus realized the kiss was coming, and he excitedly coaxed his driver home for the second-biggest win of their career.

The first came in February in the season-opening Daytona 500, and Johnson has now joined Dale Jarrett as the only driver to win at Daytona and Indianapolis in the same season.

And although Johnson is NASCAR's perpetual points leader, those two victories are a clear indication that this team has perhaps finally turned the corner and matured enough to seal its first championship.