As driver Jimmie Johnson did his championship burnout at Homestead-Miami Speedway following the conclusion of the Ford 400, his crew chief Chad Knaus held up a simple, handwritten sign for the nearby television cameras: “The best TEAM won.”
In the end, there’s not much question about that, nor is there any about the fire that drives the brilliant and relentlessly intense Knaus, the only crew chief in NASCAR history to win more than two consecutive Sprint Cup championships.
And in the process of winning a fifth consecutive title, Knaus may have taught his new arch-rival Mike Ford a lesson or two.
During the third race of the Chase, at Kansas Speedway in early October, Knaus chose a pit stall directly next to the one Ford had selected for his driver, Denny Hamlin. It is an unwritten rule of etiquette in the Sprint Cup garage that championship contenders don’t pit next to each other. It’s treated as a sign of respect and courtesy to not pit next to each other and potentially block the other driver on pit road.
When Knaus chose to pit Johnson next to Hamlin at Kansas, Ford was incensed, treating it as a deliberate insult and a slight, too.
Five weeks later at Texas, Ford did the same thing to Knaus. During that race, the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports pit crew had a series of horrible pit stops, leading Knaus to replace them mid-race with teammate Jeff Gordon's pit crew, which stayed with the No. 48 for the final two races of the season.
Hamlin won at Texas, his second Chase victory in three weeks, and took a lead of 33 points over Johnson, who had a fast enough car to win, but finished ninth in the race. Afterwards, Ford ripped Knaus and the Hendrick organization.
“As far as watching what happened next to us, I'll be honest with you, I stayed focused on what we needed to do,” Ford said after the Texas race. “We did see all that go on, saw them (Johnson’s crew) making mistakes, saw them studying us real hard, and when you put your focus on watching other people, you make mistakes, so I was glad to see that they are watching us and paying attention. That means they are chasing. And they made mistakes in doing so."
But Ford was just getting warmed up.
“I think it was kind of a desperation move,” said Ford. “But it's something that — I won't say that race team — that Jimmie, Chad and Rick (Hendrick, team owner) needed to do if they wanted to win a championship because they just took their team out of it. They removed their team. Their team got them to this point and they pulled them out, so this is more about trying to win a championship for the company and not the team.”
And while Knaus, Johnson and others have said repeatedly they don’t read what people write about NASCAR or watch television sports shows about NASCAR, Knaus darn sure knew exactly what Ford had said.
Sunday, Knaus was asked if his sign was in response to Ford’s comments.
“Yes, absolutely,” Knaus said. “I think our team and our organization is better than what they have got at Gibbs. Just the facts.”
Well, actually, there was a little bit more to it than just the facts.
“I didn't appreciate the way that they said that we were selfish and inconsiderate to the guys on our team when we had to pull them,” said Knaus. “And I wanted to make sure that this championship is not about that decision that was made in Texas in the middle of the race or the decision that was made the Monday after Texas, because that's not what it was.
“This decision was made by Steve Letarte (Gordon’s crew chief) and myself in December of last year saying that we were going to win the championship out of the 24/48 building, and we were going to do whatever it took; if that meant no sleep, if that meant changing cars; the 24 guys actually had a 48 car here this weekend.”
The way that Hendrick is structured, Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet and Gordon’s No. 24 are run out of the same building. They both drive chassis built by the same crewmen and fabricators, engines hand-built by the same assemblers. Two cars, one team.
It’s the same way with the team’s other shop, which fields cars for Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“We operate in that building as a single unit and we field two cars for two great drivers and we are going to do whatever we can to win as many races and as many championships out of that building as possible,” Knaus said Sunday night. “We work for the organization. We work for the team because there's 520 something people that work at Hendrick Motorsports, and we have a responsibility to them to do what's right; if he (Ford) can't see that or if they can't see that, then they aren't a team.”
In the days and weeks ahead, there will be much discussion about this Chase, one of the most exciting and dramatic in NASCAR history. And while there were probably a dozen key moments where the Chase was won or lost, where the title balance tilted, this much is indisputable: Love him or loathe him, Knaus had the last word among crew chiefs. For the fifth year in a row.
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.