The Racing Capital
of the World
Aug 9, 2015
July 25, 2013 | By Bruce Martin
It’s been a long journey since mid-winter testing for the “Gen-6” car last December, NASCAR Preseason Thunder in January at Daytona and SpeedWeeks in February, which included Danica Patrick winning the pole and Jimmie Johnson winning the race in the Daytona 500. What followed were some twists and turns, some crashes and hot tempers, some pit road scuffles and hand gestures, some fantastic stories, many disappointments and an impressive comeback or two.
That is all part of the journey that has led NASCAR Sprint Cup to the Crown Royal Presents the Samuel Deeds 400 at the Brickyard Powered by BigMachineRecords.com – the main event in an action-packed four days of racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway known as the Kroger Super Weekend at the Brickyard.
While the GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series is the headline act in the Brickyard Grand Prix on Friday and the capper to Saturday’s show is the Indiana 250 NASCAR Nationwide Series race, the 20th running of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at the Brickyard is the grand finale Sunday at the fabled 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
And topping the storylines are Johnson’s quest to become the first five-time winner of this historic race 19 years after his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon became the inaugural Brickyard 400 winner in 1994.
After winning last year’s NASCAR race at the Brickyard in dominant fashion by leading 99 laps, this is Johnson’s first attempt to become NASCAR’s winningest driver at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway breaking a tie with Gordon, as both drivers are the only four-time winners of this race. And with a commanding lead in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings entering the race, Johnson and his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet team at Hendrick Motorsports are ready to achieve history.
But unlike Gordon, success at Indianapolis was not immediate for Johnson.
“It took me quite a while to figure out the track, but I feel that tracks that are unique and quirky, one-of-a-kind tracks, I seem to adapt well to them,” Johnson said. “Those are tracks like Martinsville, Dover, Darlington and the Brickyard. There isn’t a track out there like those.
“In my opinion, once you figure out how to drive those quirky tracks, you’ve got something that doesn’t change. It always takes that line and that rhythm to get it right; and when I show up at the racetrack, I stay very focused on that particular driving style. We adjust the car to it, and it pays off. So for me, it’s just finding that line; and then once I’ve got it, I seem to own it.
“At the Brickyard, I found it on my own. I found it through a lot of frustrating test sessions, races, a few crashed cars, and then it finally clicked. I don’t remember the exact moment. I do at Martinsville, but I don’t at Indy. It was just one weekend we came back and the light went off in my mind, and I’m like, ‘That’s how!’ And then we won. That was our first win (in 2006).”
Johnson’s discovery was impressive as the won the 2006 Brickyard 400 – joining Dale Jarrett as the only drivers to win the Daytona 500 at the NASCAR race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the same year.
But behind every great driver is a team that prepares a major piece to the puzzle – a fast race car and a crafty strategy. The man in charge of both is the crew chief, and Johnson has the best in the business in Chad Knaus of Rockford, Ill.
Knaus will take the NASCAR rules to the limit with his innovation, which sometimes may step over the line. That has drawn the ire of NASCAR’s competition department and officials, but Knaus is to NASCAR what New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick is to the National Football League.
All these two care about is winning, no matter who they royally upset in the process.
“I think quite honestly, all of those victories were so special,” Knaus said of his four wins at Indianapolis with Johnson. “I think last year's was a lot of fun, from the standpoint of really having a super-dominant race car, so that was definitely one that stood out.”
Johnson remembers a time early in his relationship with Knaus when they used to drink beer and toss horseshoes – simple pleasures for two common men who do extraordinary things. From those early beginnings, one of the greatest driver/crew chief relationships in NASCAR history has developed.
“Well, it's like any other relationship,” Knaus said. “It grows, and there's an ebb and flow of good times and bad. Jimmie and I have been very fortunate over the years to get a good appreciation and mutual respect for one another. We expanded on that relationship again this weekend, so we've had a few of those opportunities where we've been able to have a few beers and play some reindeer games.
“Now we are to the point where I can understand where it is and how off we are with the race car based on his body language and what he says and his feedback. And he can definitely see with my feedback and my body language and the tone of my voice, he knows what's happening from my perspective, and that's always good. One, you can kind of be short and concise and everybody understands where you're at; and two, if there's something going on that you don't feel like talking about, the other person may have a way to play out of the funk if that's something like that. If a lot of different levels, it's pretty good for us.”
Despite being surrounded by such extraordinary success, including five straight NASCAR Sprint Cup titles, 64 Cup wins and four wins at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Johnson and Knaus continue to push and motivate each other.
“You just don't settle,” Knaus said. “It's kind of funny; I always am in just a semi-state of a little bit of fear. I'm not going to lie. I don't want … I fear the fact that one day, we'll never win a race again. I fear the fact that one day I won't work with Jimmie again. I fear the fact that one day, I won't have this amazing facility at Hendrick Motorsports to work in. And I try to work as hard as I can every single day to go out there and win races because I know at some point in time, it's going to go away. And you just can't take anything for granted.
“As far as keeping our feet on the ground, it's really rather simple with the group of guys that we've got. We all know that in seven weeks, this is all going away. This point lead, the momentum, the victories, all that is going to mean nothing as soon as we get to Chicagoland. And when we get there, we have to be on top of our game.
“So to motivate these guys right now isn't really … the issue is making them realize that in seven weeks, they have to take their games to the next level, and that's really hard to do. Because if you sit back now and think that you can coast until Chicago, you're sadly mistaken, because most important thing to do going into Chicago is to make sure you have momentum on your side, and that's what our focus is.”
Momentum is definitely on the side of the No. 48 with a 56-point lead – more than a race – in the Sprint Cup points standings. But don’t expect to see this team go into cruise control. It hits the track every weekend to add points and win races.
“We've had seasons that are very similar to this, but I'll be quite honest with you, I don't feel our team is at 10-tenths yet,” Knaus said. “We have got a long ways to go. There's a lot for us to improve upon, and we are trying to get better weekly. I think we are getting better, but we have a long ways to go.
“So we have got, over the course of the next seven weeks, for us to be operating where I feel like we need to be operating, we have a long road to hoe.
“Yeah, it's tough -- especially for me. I'm not as educated as some of these new crew chiefs are. These guys are so smart that are coming into our industry. It's a challenge for me to stay abreast as to what's going on, just because things are changing so quickly. I didn't go to college; I still can't type. I one-finger peck. It's tough to keep up with what's going on and you have to; you have to want to do it.
“I love my job. I've never once not wanted to get up and go to work. Now, I've sometimes not wanted to get up because I was tired, but I've always wanted to go to work, and I'm very, very fortunate for that.”
It’s easy to understand why this team is so successful – combine Johnson’s smooth and stellar ability to drive a race car with Knaus’ mad scientist approach to being a crew chief, and it has created monster success.
“There's a level of confidence that everybody needs to be able to work within, and when we go to a racetrack and we make great calls on pit road, we make the right calls with the chassis and we go out there and we have a successful race finishing in the top-10, top-eight, top-five, and Jimmie has done a good job and he has made good moves and he has made solid decisions and the pit crew has done solid pit stops, it just gives you a level of comfort to be able to go out there and attack,” Knaus said. “A lot of the decisions that we make, we want to say that we are so educated and we are so prepared; a lot what have we do is just off the hip.
“When you have to make decisions like that, when you feel like you've done a good job over a period of time and you're comfortable making those decisions, if you got burned on pit road a lot, say you're taking two tires and everybody else took four; you stayed out, everybody stayed in; you pitted, everybody else stayed out. You go through three or four weeks of that, when it's time to make that decision, you've got all those scenarios passing through your head. You have this menu of options that are just flittering through, and you're thinking, which one do I need to do or I could burn here? Having good, solid races is really, really important.”
And it’s obvious that at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Johnson and Knaus are solid as a rock – make that, solid as a Brick.