Updated at: 11/14/2013 11:35 AM
By JENNA FRYER
(AP) CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Here’s all you need to know about Chad Knaus as the crew chief closes in on his sixth championship with Jimmie Johnson: When asked about how dominating the pair has been since they partnered in 2002, the relentless Knaus replied: "We lose a heck of a lot more races than we win."
True, Johnson has lost 365 races since his rookie season.
But he’s won 64 with Knaus atop his pit box, and the crew chief prepared the cars for his other two Sprint Cup victories. Knaus was suspended by NASCAR for the first four races of 2006, when Johnson opened the year with wins in the Daytona 500 and at Las Vegas.
It was a rough start to the year for the duo after team owner Rick Hendrick had nearly split them during the offseason. They’d come up short once again in their bid for a championship, were fed up with each other, and the owner famously made them sit down over milk and cookies to hash out their differences.
Once Knaus returned from suspension in 2006, they never looked back and reeled off five straight titles.
Now, after watching other drivers hoist the Sprint Cup trophy the last two years, they are poised to reclaim their spot on top of the sport Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Johnson goes into the finale with a 28-point lead over Matt Kenseth and needs to finish 23rd or better to win the title.
Knaus acknowledged this week that their success has not been as easy as it has looked.
"Jimmie and I have been together for a long time, obviously. Any relationship needs work," he said. "We’ve had some really good times, we’ve had some really stressful times together. We’ve had some really successful times. We’ve had a lot of victories and a lot of faults. Everybody thinks that we dominate and so on and so forth and that’s what everybody writes about and the fans talk about, but man, we lose a lot of races, and that’s taxing on anybody.
"As we’re trying to do better weekly and improve weekly, it’s always a challenge. The good thing we’ve got is that I’ve got 100 percent confidence in Jimmie and I feel like he has the same for me, and we know that at the end of the day, all we’re trying to do is to make each other better with any of our constructive criticism, any of our feedback or any of our suggestions. It’s a really nice environment to work in when you know that your driver has your back 100 percent."
It’s hard for Johnson not to have complete faith in Knaus, who has dedicated the last 11 years to the No. 48 team.
Johnson, a father of two, has taken to 5:30 a.m. workouts. Asked if he’s ever able to join Johnson, Knaus scoffed.
"Man, I’m coming to work at 5:30 in the morning. He gets to go train," Knaus said. "We have completely different schedules. If I had the ability to go train at 5:30 and come in at 8:00 or whatever, I would maybe do that. But unfortunately that’s not how it works for me. I have to come in and go to work."
That’s the martyr in Knaus, because he wouldn’t have it any other way.
He’s a perfectionist to his core, and he expects the same from those around him. So when Kenseth’s crew botched a pit stop last week at Phoenix in a race that likely took Kenseth out of the title race, crew chief Jason Ratcliff was back-slapping his guys and trying to keep them motivated for the remainder of the day.
Had that been Knaus’ crew, he more than likely would have swapped them out on the spot for another Hendrick Motorsports’ crew and potentially permanently replaced the offending employees.
Knaus may go down as the best crew chief in NASCAR history. Deep down, he probably strives for that unofficial title. For now, he won’t even cop to being the best in the series.
"Well, I don’t think I’m the best crew chief in the garage," he said. "I think I’ve got the best team, I’ve got the best driver and the best resources. I think that keeping those pieces together is a bit of a challenge and difficult, and that’s one thing I’ve been very fortunate enough to be able to do. We’ve had a lot of changes with engineers and mechanics and pit crew members and we can still run up there, but I feel like that as a whole, what I’m trying to improve on isn’t really the crew chief thing, it’s the personal issues, how to communicate, how to continue to improve the respect with the people that work with you and your group and how to communicate properly, how to gain the respect on a consistent basis with everybody that you’re involved with."
NOTHING TO SEE HERE: With a month to go in the season, Kevin Harvick very easily could have derailed his championship chances with an outburst directed at team owner Richard Childress’ grandsons.
Upset that he’d been spun by Ty Dillon in a Truck Series race at Martinsville, Harvick had pointed words for Dillon and older brother, Austin, after the incident. He blamed the emergence of the Dillons for his impending departure from Richard Childress Racing, and Childress was livid over the accusations.
Fans speculated Childress would kick Harvick out of the car immediately and write off the remaining four Sprint Cup races.
Instead, Harvick publicly apologized, the No. 29 team hunkered down and goes into Sunday’s finale with a mathematical shot at winning the title. Harvick is 34 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson following his victory Sunday at Phoenix.
"This deal is tough enough like it is, and obviously you don’t want things like that to happen, but it did," Harvick crew chief Gil Martin said of the Martinsville incident. "I felt like after several phone conversations that we could get right back on track. I never had the doubt about the focus of the team or Kevin once the race started. After the race was over, I felt pretty confident that we were right back on track."
Harvick’s final race with RCR is Sunday at Homestead. He grew emotional at Phoenix sitting between Martin and Childress reflecting on his time with the organization and driving for a no-nonsense owner.
"I think he’d probably sit here and tell you that we’ve been good for each other because we challenge each other," Harvick said. "You know, I obviously handle a lot of situations wrong, but it pushes a lot of buttons to try to make things better. There’s no better way to go out than to do what we’ve done this year. Obviously we went to Martinsville, and I said things that I shouldn’t have said and put everybody in a position that was not good, but I think we had conversations about things after that that probably made us closer as people, and I think as we move forward will probably make us closer as friends."
Harvick will drive for Stewart-Haas Racing next season.
VIDEO VETTEL: Four-time Formula One champion Sebastian Vettel says he enjoys video games, but doesn’t see them replacing traditional driver training as a pipeline to professional racing.
Vettel said during a visit to Nissan Motor Co.’s North American headquarters outside Nashville, Tenn., on Wednesday that he considers the skills learned on track at an early age to be crucial to developing the key skill for drivers: figuring out how to go faster. The driver’s comments may be at odds with the Japanese automaker’s Nissan GT Academy, a worldwide competition among hundreds of thousands of PlayStation gamers to be selected to become professional drivers.
After meeting with Nissan workers, Vettel gave some of them high-speed rides around a makeshift track in a new Infiniti Q50 sedan.
Associated Press Writer Erik Schelzig in Franklin, Tenn., contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)