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One effect of title: Knaus can be fun

Jimmie Johnson's crew chief thinks a more light hearted approach is reward for his crew.

By BRANT JAMES
Published January 13, 2007


DAYTONA BEACH - Chad Knaus looked oddly at ease signing autographs through a window slot in the garage bay this week at Daytona International Speedway. He was laughing, not fussing over the open hood of the No. 48 Chevrolet behind him. The furrow that defined his brow last fall during a grueling championship chase with driver Jimmie Johnson was gone, opening his face into a smile.

Strange indeed for a super-serious, meticulous crew chief during his team's first on-track activity since it captured its first Nextel Cup title in November at Homestead-Miami Speedway. But Knaus was already in midseason form. Just a different form.

"It's difficult, man, to repeat in Nextel Cup competition," he said. "You've got to realize we only won the championship a month and a half ago and we're already here back at work. You don't have an opportunity to enjoy it, and one of the hard things you've got to understand is you've got to find a balance."

The car behind Knaus was the talk of the garage during the first of two Nextel Cup tests at Daytona. It was painted in black and white zigzags, German U-boat style. Bizarre. Other teams didn't get it. His crew didn't get it, though Knaus said it had something to do with perceiving the lines of the car at high speeds. Whatever, went the thinking, the mad scientist was tweaking moods and motivations like shocks and springs. Knaus said this season, at least early on, is about enjoying a championship - the one he and Johnson finally earned after winning a series-best 23 times since 2002, but finishing second in points twice.

"If you go out there and push too hard and want to get everything out of the guys right out of the box like you would do in a normal year, then they lose the drive to want to win the championship," he said, "because they didn't get anything out of it."

Knaus said figuring out a way to finish off a championship was good for the team for more than the obvious reasons.

"If we hadn't, we would not have reflected on what we were able to do last year," he said. "We wouldn't have reflected on winning the Daytona 500, reflecting on winning the Brickyard race. If not, we would have just kept our heads down and kept working and not even paid any attention to those victories."

Johnson, in a December moment of postseason exuberance with friends, unwittingly provided the template for enjoying the now. Knaus, 35, claims he was not surprised to learn Johnson broke his wrist after flying off the top of a golf cart during Mike Hampton's celebrity tournament at Black Diamond Ranch in Lecanto. Boys, he said, need to be boys.

"It's just something we do," said Knaus, Johnson's crew chief since his rookie year in 2002. "Trust me, if you don't go out there - and this is my opinion - if you don't go out there and ride a motorcycle and jump off a bridge and do base jumping and jump out of airplanes and climb on top of a golf cart and go water skiing, do something, you're not living."

That's a feeling apparently shared by someone whose opinion matters even more for Johnson: team owner Rick Hendrick.

"If it would have affected the season, I think that Rick and primary sponsor Lowe's and everybody would have a different opinion," Johnson said. "But it's really been lighthearted. Rick has called me and has done nothing but harass me as Rick Hendrick does, so it's really been a funny experience."

Certainly the tone will become more serious with the Daytona 500 barely five weeks away. Johnson is the defending race winner and expectations will soar.

For now, though, there's time to smile.

Brant James can be reached at brant@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8804.

Fast Facts:

Nextel Cup testing

Where: Daytona International Speedway

When: Monday-Wednesday. Sessions begin around 9 a.m. and end around 5 p.m.

If you go: Fans can watch testing for free from the Oldfield grandstands all three days, but a ticket is required for Tuesday's 5 p.m. fan fest, which includes driver forums, entertainment, show cars and displays. Fans can enter the Nextel Fanzone at 9 a.m. Tuesday to watch testing. Tickets cost $15.

Speedweeks

From the Rolex 24 sports car race Jan. 27-28, to the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18. See daytonainternational speedway.com or call (800) 748-7467 for tickets.