Chad Knaus winding up in the rumor mill is about as new as someone crying on Oprah. It’s something that you always expect to pop up once a month on the news with the only thing changing being the answers to the question of "What is it this time?"
Now, Chad Knaus actually contributing to his appearance in the rumor mill"¦well, that’s a whole different story. Perhaps, you might say, it’s the hidden surprise of the All-Star Weekend.
2006 hasn’t been a banner year for Chad. Suspended for four weeks following a qualifying violation at the Daytona 500, Knaus watched humbly from the sidelines as fill-in crew chief Darian Grubb led Johnson to two wins, a second, and a sixth to start off the year. Still, since Knaus returned to the track, the 48 team has continued to stay solid—- Johnson has a win at Talladega to go with his All-Star Challenge triumph, and six Top 12 finishes in the last seven races. Sure, the 48 bunch has been overshadowed at times by Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth, two teams clearly positioning themselves for the Chase and running up front week in, week out—- but it’s Johnson who’s leading the points, with Knaus at the helm.
With a third straight appearance in the Chase all but a lock this early in the season, you’d certainly think everything would be peachy over in the 48 camp, controversy over that suspension long forgotten. Apparently not. While both sponsor Lowe’s and driver Johnson trotted out this week with a contract extension that would keep both a part of the 48 car through 2010, Knaus was a notable omission from that PR photo op. Instead, Knaus finds himself with a contract expiring after 2007, something he’s not too happy about.
"I would like to work something out and stay (at Hendrick)," Knaus claimed this week when asked. "There just aren’t any talks to do that right now."
Would Hendrick really let his top crew chief go? Just the fact Knaus felt it necessary to speak out on the subject during the start of Silly Season means it’s very possible. Don’t forget, Toyota’s new teams are drooling over any capable crew members available, and they have yet to come out with that marquis crew chief name that’ll both get them good PR and spearhead their chassis development, a role Ray Evernham helped serve back when Dodge got into the sport. Someone of Knaus’ caliber would be a steal at a time when Toyota has already landed their "big driver" in Dale Jarrett.
From the outside looking in, allowing Knaus to leave Hendrick in any way, shape, or form would be a big mistake. Certainly, Johnson’s performance during the early part of the season was outstanding with Grubb at the helm; but it’s not like Knaus wasn’t allowed to talk to the team during the suspension, and the cars at those races came with heavy advice and setup support from the suspended crew chief. Make no mistake, despite Grubb’s success during that time there was no question as to who remained, and still remains, the heart and soul holding the 48 team together: Knaus.
While Johnson and Knaus have not yet won a title, the duo is poised to make a fifth consecutive run at a championship. Who else can you name that’s been in position to make a run at the title five years in a row? No, I can’t think of anyone either. Their 21 wins together since the start of 2002 is more than any other crew chief-driver combination during that span. It’s one thing when a crew chief leaves a driver after every goal has been completed, as was the case when crew chief Ray Evernham left Johnson’s Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon—- the two had three championships and two Daytona 500 wins together. Technically, Knaus and Johnson don’t even have Johnson’s Daytona 500 win to share, as Knaus wasn’t at the track when it happened. Breaking up such a solid pair before they took the championship they covet so much is the type of move that leaves you with that empty, hollow feeling of what went wrong instead of what’s going right.
The distraction Knaus of leaving or being signed away would certainly be enough to kill off the chances of Johnson winning the title in 2006. If Hendrick feels a change is necessary, his track record of success is such that you find it hard to criticize or question the man’s decisions. In this case, though, if I were in Hendrick’s shoes I’d have Knaus on the phone on Monday morning, pronto; with your best team and your best chance at a championship on the line, this is one Knaus you’d want to sign on the dotted line, wouldn’t you think? We all know Toyota’s not going to take long to make their move.
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