It was just past
8 p.m. on Jan. 30 in Las Vegas, a chill was in the air on the Strip, and the
thrill of possibility was pulsating through the sports book at the Bellagio
Hotel and Casino. Leaning back in plush recliners, bettors followed the action
in several basketball games shown on supersized TV screens that hang from the
dark-colored walls. Amid outbursts of ecstasy and agony that reflected the
fortunes of those wagering, the man known as the shrewdest risk taker in NASCAR
strolled into the smoky room.
Dressed in a tan
jacket, a collared shirt and blue jeans, the mastermind behind the 2006 Nextel
Cup championship took a seat in a leather chair and grabbed a piece of paper
that listed the odds for each driver to win the 2007 points title. "We're
the favorite [at 7 to 2]--I like that," said Chad Knaus, the crew chief for
Jimmie Johnson and the number 48 Lowe's Chevrolet. "But any of the top 15
teams could win it all. The competition level is the best it's ever
Indeed, race fans
can bet on this: 2007 will be the most wide-open race for the Cup in NASCAR
history. While only a handful of drivers had a realistic shot at the
championship 10 years ago because of the disparity in resources among race
teams, this season roughly a third of the 43-car field has a chance. There are
still superpowers-- Hendrick Motorsports (which counts four teams among the
challengers, including Knaus-Johnson), Joe Gibbs Racing, Roush Racing and
Evernham Motorsports--but they don't have that much of an edge over drivers
from Richard Childress Racing, Dale Earnhardt, Inc. and Penske Racing
oddsmakers were correct in making the Knaus-Johnson team the one everyone else
in the Cup garage will be chasing, because over the last five seasons the pair
has won more races (23) and had more top 10 finishes (110) than any other crew
Knaus continued to study the Bellagio's odds, examining the sheet as if it were
as complex as the thick NASCAR rule book that he keeps in his office on the
outskirts of Charlotte. Finally, he looked up. "I do know this," he
said. "We're not satisfied. We want another championship."
Johnson won the Daytona 500 last February, signs started to appear in the
stands at such tracks as Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, Martinsville (Va.)
Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, all with the same theme--Chad
Knaus: cheater--referring to what occurred seven days before the 500. After
Johnson had roared around the 2.5-mile superspeedway for his two qualifying
laps and placed fifth for the next qualifier, NASCAR inspectors discovered that
the car's rear window had been slightly raised sometime between the
prequalifying inspection and the qualifying runs. NASCAR ruled that this gave
Johnson an aerodynamic advantage and was a blatant rules violation. Johnson's
times were thrown out, and he was forced to start the next qualifier at the
back of the pack; Knaus was ejected from the track, fined $25,000 and suspended
for one month; he accepted the penalty without appeal.
Newman, who would finish third in the 500, said after the race, "Three out
of Jimmie's last four wins have had connections with the cars' being illegal...
It's not necessarily good for the sport."
marked the seventh time in five years that Knaus had been cited by NASCAR for a
rules violation. "Every word in the rule book has a space between it, and
that's where you look for an advantage," Knaus says, revealing the risk
taker in him. "The perception of me being a cheater is not true at all. I
just try to find a loophole and explore that."
nonetheless saw things differently. Knaus flew home to Mooresville, N.C., for
what would turn out to be the most important month of his racing career.
When Johnson went
on to take the checkered flag at Daytona with team engineer Darian Grubb
sitting atop the pit box in Knaus's place, Knaus was watching from his
living-room couch, eating popcorn. At that moment he didn't know that his
suspension was already helping his team win the Cup.