Position: Crew Chief
The 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season marks the 13th in which crew chief Chad Knaus will guide driver Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 48 team. With Knaus at the helm, the No. 48 team has achieved six Cup championships and several other milestones including the 200th Cup victory for Hendrick Motorsports and the first points-paying win for the Generation-6 Chevrolet SS.
Knaus also has achieved personal milestones along the way and is within reach of others. Notably, he’s the only crew chief in NASCAR history to have earned three consecutive championships – an accolade he achieved after guiding the No. 48 team to the 2006-2008 titles. All told, Knaus’ six championships are the most among active crew chiefs, and he needs two more to tie Hall of Famer Dale Inman.
After winning the 2013 Cup title, Knaus told members of the media that his team had yet to reach its full potential. His team might be young, but his relationship with Johnson is the longest in the current Cup garage, and combined, those factors speak optimism into their 2014 campaign.
The Early Years
Knaus’ rise to the Cup Series started like most modern-day crew chiefs. Born in Illinois, his introduction to racing was immediate as he followed his father, John, around the local Midwest tracks, helping out when he could and anxiously watching when he couldn’t.
Knaus’ desire for racing continued throughout his adolescence. At age 14, his future success in NASCAR was foreshadowed when he served as crew chief for his father. That year, the elder Knaus captured the Rockford (Ill.) Speedway championship with his son calling the shots from the pits. The father-son combination went on to many more victories, capturing the NASCAR Great Northern Series championship and finishing second in the Winston Racing Series.
Chad Knaus graduated from high school and almost immediately moved to North Carolina to continue his racing career. He took an engineering job, but ultimately realized he needed to relocate once more to make his racing dreams come true. In 1991, he moved to Alabama to work for Stanley Smith’s stock car team as a mechanic and fabricator.
Two years later, Knaus’ determination paid off and he was offered a position on Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team led by crew chief Ray Evernham. From 1993 to 1998, Knaus assumed a variety of duties. He started in the body shop as an assistant and gradually worked his way through the ranks to the fabrication department. Eventually, he was put in charge of the body development for the No. 24 car and served as a tire changer for the team, proving an integral part of the 1995 and 1997 championship efforts.
After the 1997 season, Knaus reluctantly left Hendrick Motorsports to pursue his dream of being a crew chief. The organization was stocked with a solid staff, but Rick Hendrick vowed that he would one day bring back Knaus.
Knaus spent the next few years gaining valuable experience throughout the industry. He was a car chief at Dale Earnhardt Inc. for driver Steve Park before joining up with new Cup team owner Ray Evernham to crew chief Casey Atwood in 2000. The following year, Knaus was the crew chief for Melling Racing driver Stacy Compton, who won both poles at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.
In 2002, Knaus seized the opportunity to return to Hendrick Motorsports and he was named the crew chief as the organization expanded to a fourth Cup entry. Knaus was paired up with rookie driver Jimmie Johnson, and the duo opened the season by winning the pole position at the Daytona 500. Despite some growing pains, Knaus and Johnson finished the season with three victories, six top-five finishes, 21 top-10s, four pole positions and a fifth-place result in the championship standings.
The Knaus-Johnson partnership continued to grow stronger, and the No. 48 team continued to threaten for the championship. From 2003-2005, Knaus led the No. 48 team to 18 victories and an average finish of 3.5 in the final standings.
In 2006, their persistence was rewarded. Johnson won his first Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 trophies on his way to capturing his first Cup championship and the first for Knaus.
Their success proved to be just the beginning. Under Knaus’ guidance, the No. 48 team went on to record a NASCAR-best five straight championships from 2006-2010. During the dominating run, the No. 48 team scored 39 victories, 81 top-five finishes, 117 top-10s and 17 pole positions.
Knaus’ team struggled to maintain momentum coming into the 2011 season, and the slow start combined with various misfortunes translated to a sixth-place finish in the final standings. Knaus coached Johnson and the No. 48 team to various milestones, including the closest margin of victory recorded since the inception of electronic scoring. That happened at Talladega in April 2012 when Johnson used a push from teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. to cross the finish line .002 seconds ahead of runner-up Clint Bowyer. In 2012, Knaus led the No. 48 team to capture Hendrick Motorsports’ 200th career Cup victory, when his team won on May 12 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway. The victory was a boost for Knaus’ group, which closed out the year with four more wins and contended for the 2012 championship in the final race. But with 43 laps to go, a rear-gear issue sidelined Johnson and left the team ranked third in the final standings.
Knaus opened the 2013 season with a relatively young No. 48 team and a brand-new Chevrolet SS race car. Undaunted, the group won the season-opening Daytona 500 and recorded the first points-paying victory with Chevrolet’s Generation-6 race car. Knaus’ team remained ranked No. 1 in the driver standings for 28 of the series’ 36 race weekends and ultimately recorded its sixth Cup championship.