Jimmie Johnson hosted his fourth Sprint Cup trophy this past weekend, and for good measure it was his fourth in a row. For each of those four seasons, and for all of his eight seasons in the Cup Series, Chad Knaus has been on top of the pit box making the calls. After Johnson signed a contract last week that will keep him at Hendrick Motorsports through at least 2015, Knaus did the same thing this week, ensuring that the most dominant driver/crew chief combination in the sport today will continue terrorizing the tracks of the series for the next six seasons.
For those who don’t have their NASCAR history books handy, remember that Johnson finished second in the points in 2003 and 2004. In 2004 he was eight points behind Kurt Busch when the checkered flag flew in Homestead after finishing 37th at Talladega and 32nd at Kansas. If he finished three positions higher in either of those races he would have just passed Jeff Gordon in the total championship category. Johnson finished fifth in the points in his rookie season of 2002 and had the third-best average finish that season. In 2005 he came home fifth in the points again, 127 points behind Tony Stewart and would have been much closer were it not for a crash at Homestead that left him 32nd.
When it is all said and done, the Knaus/Johnson combination has been lethal over the last eight years and is showing no signs of slowing down. Knaus’s drive for perfection is unquestioned. When other teams are rolling out of bed before they head to the track on race day, the No. 48 team is waiting for the doors to the garage to be opened. That dedication comes from the top down. This past weekend the pre-race show had video of Knaus measuring his pit stall and analyzing the space behind the wall where his team’s pit cart would be located. When the No. 48 leaves the garage on Sunday mornings, the team lays out front end and rear end parts, hoods, fenders, everything they might need to try and fix a car if it is involved in a wreck. It is all about preparation and doing things better than everyone else.
There is no question that Johnson is a great racecar driver. He’s taken a car that was a fifth-place car and won with it in recent years, and there haven’t been many drivers who could do that with the modern car design. Knaus has helped that effort by making pit calls that have put Johnson in position in front of the field and given him the opportunity to hold off stronger cars. It is certainly easier to hold off faster cars with an inferior car than it is to pass better cars with a car that isn’t handling perfectly, but either situation has seen Johnson excel over the last eight years.
Knaus cut his teeth under Ray Evernham and has taken the commitment and organization that Evernham espoused to a whole new level. Everyone in the garage works hard, and to say someone is working harder than the others is probably inaccurate, but when the combination of a ridiculous work ethic is combined with a brain that processes information on a plane that many others cannot fathom, the end result is a team doing things that are unheard of and untouched in the history of the sport.
So where do they go from here? There are two primary goals on the horizon, with a number of secondary goals to be achieved along the way. Johnson has to now be thinking about the magic number seven. That is the standard for championships in the sport and he is more than halfway to the total in eight years. It took Richard Petty 13 years of running a majority of the schedule, although he didn’t compete in a majority in 1965 to win his fourth title. It was 20 years before he was able to capture his seventh title. Dale Earnhardt was running the Cup Series for 12 years before he was holding the championship trophy aloft for the fourth time, and 16 years before he captured his seventh title. Johnson is at four titles in two thirds of the time it took Earnhardt and a little less than it took Petty to get to four. If the Chase format and schedule stay relatively static for the next few years, and there is no reason to believe it won’t, Johnson has to be a favorite to hit the magic number within the 12-year window.
At the same time, Knaus has one crew chief in his sights. Dale Inman won eight Cup championships as a crew chief. No one has won four in a row before now, and Knaus is the only one besides Inman and Kirk Shelmerdine with four. If Knaus can maintain his focus and keep him team together while Johnson continues to excel and even improve as a driver they very well could catch Inman and pass him before the end of their contracts. With the addition of six years to their respective contracts, Knaus and Johnson are poised to set the impossible mark and win 10 championships in a row.
Will it happen? Probably not. Could it happen? Certainly. Might it happen? As long as the duo stays together, there is no question that Knaus and Johnson have the potential to keep hoisting the big hardware for years and years to come.