June 15, 2014 at 8:33 pm

Angelique S. Chengelis

Chad Knaus' flawless strategy sets Jimmie Johnson on road to MIS victory

Brooklyn, Mich. — Jimmie Johnson’s victory in the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway on Sunday was orchestrated days ago, maybe even months ago, somewhere in the team shop and somewhere even deeper in the mind of crew chief Chad Knaus.

Johnson is a six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup series champion, but without Knaus, arguably the best in the business, where would he be?

Probably not in Victory Lane 69 times in the last 13 years and definitely not the dominant driver he has become with six championships since 2006.

Johnson was 0-for-24 at Michigan after leading 625 total laps and holding leads even with a lap remaining before miseries like running out of fuel, engine failures and tire issues defied his chances. The car was strong Sunday, and Johnson, the defending series champion, was smooth as usual, but it was Knaus who pulled the strategy strings and finally got the 48 in Victory Lane.

Each race, he arrives armed with potential blueprints for how the races could evolve, and each week he makes the calls from the pit box. Sometimes he fails, but not often.

“We work really hard to try and understand and follow what’s going on,” Knaus said. “It’s really hard. You’ve really got to pay attention. It ends up being, ‘How much are you willing to dedicate (to preparation)?’ ”

Knaus and lead engineer Dave Elenz study other teams, trying to find an edge, looking for that race hiccup they can seize upon and take advantage. They put that knowledge and preparation to good use at MIS.

“Watching film, paying attention watching what other teams do leading up to the event, that’s one thing Dave and myself, we pride ourselves on paying attention to what happens leading up to an event,” Knaus said, sounding more like a football coach than a crew chief. ”So coming into it, we have a good idea what we need to do when situations arise.”

The correct call

With 35 laps to go at the fast two-mile oval and his driver in the lead, Knaus made the call to have Johnson pit for four tires under green. There were eight cautions in the race, but the race stayed green after he pitted. That allowed Johnson a chance to cycle back into the lead, while his competitors had to pit.

The connection between driver and crew chief is pivotal in realizing success, and it’s as much about chemistry as it is about race preparation. Maybe it isn’t like finishing each other’s sentences, but it’s pretty close, and that type of intuitive connection is what sets these two apart.

“I could tell in his voice that he was setting up for something,” Johnson said of the final stop for tires. “I could sense what it was. When he pulled me to pit lane, the gap I had over second spot at that time, I knew four (tires) would be the call. May as well put four on if you’ve got time for it.

“When he made that call and got back on the track, (I was) just going off the tone of his voice, and what he was asking me to do with the car, and he kept asking me to save the tires in case there was a caution. I knew we were good on fuel, so that gave me optimism. And then, honestly, once we had our four tires on and fuel in the car, if the caution came out, I still think we were golden. We had enough to go the distance whereas everybody else was short. Chad saw an opportunity and allowed that to develop and took great advantage of it. Certainly, I’m sure there was some risk at a small window in time there, but it really was a win-win.”

Getting in a groove

Win. Win. Win. Win … it’s what Johnson and Knaus do and do so well.

But they hadn’t done it at Michigan until Sunday, which now leaves only four Sprint Cup tracks where Johnson has yet to win (Kentucky, Chicago, Watkins Glen and Homestead, Fla.)

This team is hitting its stride with three wins in the last four weeks, but the significance of winning at Michigan can’t be lost, particularly in the backyard of the manufacturers.

“We are getting stronger (as a team), there is no doubt about that,” Johnson said. “We’re winning a lot of races, and running up front. So we just have to do the best that we can to get stronger as the Chase gets closer, and make sure we are on our game when the Chase gets here. Nobody is going anywhere. We’re in this thing together, and we are Team 48.”

achengelis@detroitnews.com
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Jimmie Johnson sprays champagne on crew chief Chad Knaus after winning. / Bob Brodbeck / Associated Press
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