Last month, as Jimmie Johnson closed in on his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship in eight years, the discussion began about whether or not he might ultimately surpass the seven titles won by Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt. And speculation began about whether or not Johnson could be the best driver the series has ever seen — the greatest of all time.
And since Chad Knaus has been atop the pit box for all six of Johnson’s titles, logic would dictate that there ought to be some discussion about whether Knaus is the greatest crew chief of all time as well.
There’s just one problem: Knaus, who on Thursday was named NASCAR Crew Chief of the Year at the annual NASCAR NMPA Myers Brothers luncheon, is adamant that he doesn’t want to be mentioned in the company of his friend and crew chief mentor Dale Inman. It was Inman who won eight Cup titles and scored a staggering 193 race victories, most of those with his cousin Petty behind the wheel.
"I’m not even close to that. Not even close," Knaus said in an exclusive interview with FOXSports.com Thursday afternoon. "Not even close. I shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same paragraph as him (Inman). He’s accomplished way more than what I probably ever will."
Part of Knaus’ admiration of Inman is how the nature of the job has changed since Inman’s heyday in the 1960s. Nowadays, a crew chief’s main tool is a computer. In Inman’s day, the primary tools were hammers and screwdrivers and wrenches and duct tape.
"He’s driven cars to a racetrack, taken them apart, turned them into race cars, put ’em back together and driven them home," Knaus said, shaking his head at the prospect of Inman having to do that. "What he’s done is amazing."
At Homestead-Miami Speedway, Inman stopped Knaus in the garage and talked to him.
"He’s like, ‘Son, you don’t know what hard work is,’" Knaus said Inman told him. "I said, ‘You’re exactly right, sir. I have no idea.’ It’s the truth. He’s been able to do it with multiple teams, multiple drivers. I can’t even imagine."
Jimmie Johnson (left) and Chad Knaus (right) share a lighthearted moment after the 2013 Sprint Cup Series finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Asked if he ever thinks of his own legacy and how he wants to be remembered when he’s no longer a crew chief, Knaus paused, slightly at a loss for words, because it isn’t a priority for him and isn’t what he spends time thinking about.
"No. No, not really," he said. "No. Right now, we’re just worried … you know, we want to enjoy what we’ve done, take the rest of this week to kind of reflect on it a little bit and just get going again. At one point in time, maybe we’ll find something, but right now, no, man. It’s just go."
And go is something the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has done better than any car in the last decade. Team owner Rick Hendrick said the hard-driving Knaus simply wants to win more than anyone else and will do whatever it takes to make it happen.
"I get to listen and watch, and I’ve been able to do that for a lot of years," Hendrick said. "Chad will sacrifice everything for perfection in the team. And Jimmie does the same thing."
Chad will sacrifice everything for perfection in the team. And Jimmie does the same thing.
-- Rick Hendrick
Hendrick said not winning a title in 2011 and ’12 pushed Knaus and Johnson to become even closer. "That just made ’em dig deeper," said Hendrick.
Johnson, the championship driver, has absolute trust in Knaus. It’s a trust built and battle tested over a dozen years, sometimes in contentious circumstances where the two butted heads.
Not anymore. Johnson knows what his job description is if he wants to win races.
"There’s a balance and a flow we have, especially between Chad and I," said Johnson. "It’s almost … in a funny way, keeping his ass happy. Because if his ass is happy, we’re fast and things are going well."
The scary thing for the competition is the 48 team doesn’t measure itself against other teams; it measures itself against what Johnson and Knaus believe the team is capable of.
"If we just stay focused on the 48 and keep our blinders on and worry about ourselves, we’re fine," said Johnson. "We don’t need to worry about the 20 (Matt Kenseth). We don’t need to worry about the 15 (Clint Bowyer), the 88 (Dale Earnhardt Jr.). It’s only because we operate better worrying about ourselves."
The six-time champion crew chief agreed with Johnson’s take.
"If somebody beats us at the racetrack, man, they’re doing it right," said Knaus. "So hat’s off to them if they can do that."