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The Devil Is in the Details
LARS ANDERSON
February 19, 2007
Though he has a rep for bending--even breaking--the rules, crew chief Chad Knaus studies every angle in making Jimmie Johnson a winner
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February 19, 2007

The Devil Is In The Details

Though he has a rep for bending--even breaking--the rules, crew chief Chad Knaus studies every angle in making Jimmie Johnson a winner

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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 been."

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 South.

Yet the 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 chief--driver combo.

The 35-year-old 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."

Soon after 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.

Driver Ryan 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."

The incident 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."

NASCAR 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.

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