Chad Knaus finally a Daytona 500 champion crew chiefBy Kelly Crandall
For perhaps the first time, Chad Knaus seemed out of place in Victory Lane. As if he was there for the first time, not the 59th with driver Jimmie Johnson. That’s because in this case, Knaus was there for the first time, experiencing Victory Lane at Daytona as a rookie.
Knaus has had many labels thrust upon him. He’s been called numerous things throughout his career. But until Sunday night in Daytona he had yet to be called a Daytona 500 champion.
Johnson finally changed that, winning the Daytona 500 after holding off a charging teammate in Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin. For Johnson, it was his second win in the Great American Race, but the first with Knaus atop the pit box.
In 2006 when Johnson won the race, Knaus was sitting at home. NASCAR had suspended him when the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet failed post-qualifying inspection, the rear window having been found to be too low. Officials sent him home and Johnson went on to win the event a week later with Darian Grubb as interim crew chief.
Johnson even joked at the time that Knaus was probably kicking his TV, but that he had been a big a part as any as to why Johnson was in Victory Lane. This time around though, Knaus was there to celebrate in person.
“I eat, sleep and breathe 48. Anytime that I’m taken away from that racecar, I’m pretty sad,” revealed Knaus after the 500 win. “But when those guys were able to come down here and win the Daytona 500 in 2006 in my absence, I think that really solidified the strength of the 48 car.
“Was I here? No. Was I here in spirit? Most definitely. I couldn’t have been prouder of the group of guys we had there. To finally be able to come down here and win and be a part of this is definitely a huge dream come true.
“It’s great. It’s a lot of fun. It’s a great experience. I just couldn’t be prouder of everybody involved.”
Knaus and Johnson have had success at Daytona, just not recently. In their first season together in 2002, they became the first rookies to sit on the pole for the Daytona 500. They earned their second pole in 2008. In 2005 they won the Sprint Unlimited and added a Budweiser Duel win in 2010.
Their Daytona 500 history however, has been rougher. Following the 2006 win Johnson had finished 27th or worse in the last seven races before winning on Sunday, mostly from bad fortune. To start last season, Johnson’s car again failed inspection and NASCAR confiscated their c-posts. This time however, Knaus escaped suspension but Johnson crashed on just the second lap of the race and they finished 42nd.
Here we are year later, Knaus quietly standing in the background of Victory Lane getting to take in the scene for the first time. Watching the group of guys that along with himself, worked long hours during the offseason to make that moment happen. Both in the shop and their strategy at the track, sticking with the plan of never letting Johnson go anywhere near drafting practice. Single car runs were their MO and Johnson only went near a pack when absolutely necessary.
He acknowledged Sunday that they were just working towards getting to the race. Knowing they had the car and were sitting on speed that would be used when it was needed. Johnson flexed his muscle late on Sunday, making the preparation and mind of Knaus pay off.
“We work really hard at Hendrick Motorsports to prepare for the Superspeedway races. We put a great product out there,” said Knaus.
“I’m telling you, I know we worked at least 35 days straight on the car that we raced in the Daytona 500. I know I put in personally one day of 38 hours straight. I actually sent Jimmie a text, saying I’ve seen 6:48 three times today and haven’t been to bed yet.
“I think what we have above everybody else is the desire to go out and win races. We’ve got 500-plus employees at Hendrick Motorsports. When they all want to go out and win races, you put guys like this behind the seat, you’re going to see magic happen.”