"There are a lot of people here that sometimes really haven't paid their dues to be here, and they're more worried about riding on the plane or getting a fancy pair of sunglasses," Evernham said. "I remember Chad being 20 or 21 years old, and all he talked about was wanting to be the best in the garage area. He wanted my job. He wanted to do this. He wanted to do that. And to see a guy do that, by working so hard for 15 years, I just think that's great."
Knaus never got Evernham's job. After handling various roles on Gordon's 1995 and 1997 Sprint Cup title teams, he took over a team at Hendrick Motorsports when Gordon's outfit seeded a new program in 2001. In charge for the first time, Knaus found himself teamed with an unknown driver named
Eight years later, Knaus still doesn't have Evernham's old job, but he has his legacy: his reputation as the most innovative, all-encompassing, all-knowing, all-confident crew chief in the sport. He equaled Evernham's championships total by winning three consecutively with Johnson, becoming the first crew chief to lead a driver to such a feat.
Those traits and accomplishments make Knaus Sprint Cup's top crew chief, as chosen by a panel of present and former NASCAR competitors.
Jimmie Johnson had just crossed the finish line at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November 2007 to secure his second consecutive Sprint Cup title. He was preparing for his celebratory burnout while Knaus, business-like, was clearing out of the pit box, placing papers into a folder. As Knaus stepped out toward pit road, someone bumped him, sending papers scattering. Knaus lurched to secure the pages before they flew too far away. Even though Johnson had just finished the last race NASCAR would run with the "old" model race car before switching to the so-called "Car of Tomorrow" full-time, Knaus had no intention of letting even arcane information into enemy clutches. He's been known to check the grooming of crewmen before allowing them on a team plane. He oversees everything.
"The larger we get, the less that you have to fall back on your mechanical aptitude, and you can work more so with your mind than you do with your hands," Knaus said. "I do miss that. I'm not going to lie to you. I miss working on the racecars as much as what I used to. Quite frankly, it's not the wise way for us to be as successful as we need to be."
Knaus' combination of technical skill, innovation -- which led to several NASCAR sanctions before the debut of the less-pliable "Car of Tomorrow" -- and tactical acumen were demonstrated again last week at Darlington, when Johnson overcame several pitfalls to salvage an unlikely runner-up finish.
Sometimes jealously referred to as "Little Ray" or "The Smartest Man in the Garage," he is hands-on, but is masterful at imparting his intensity to his crewmen and driver, one of the most prickly parts of a multi-faceted job description.
"He's very focused. He dedicated his life to it," Evernham said. "I see Chad taking a lot of the foundation we laid down and improving on it, and he's had a lot of success because he has his people believing it."
But in the end, said three-time series champion
"I think Chad Knaus is like
And Chad is not influenced by what his driver has to say. That's Chad's car, and Jimmie is the driver of Chad's car. It's not Jimmie's car. It's Chad's car."
The stern Osborne, who settled what was once a fluctuating crew chief situation for
"I like the way
Edwards had the temerity to argue pit strategy at Pocono in 2008, and even though he won (on a fuel call), he learned who was running things after the race. Though Osborne said he and Edwards argue regularly, Edwards said he thought Osborne was "going to punch me in the neck, so I had to walk away. Bob is one of the smartest guys in the world, but he was looking kind of angry."
In the end, though, the calls distinguish Osborne, said
"That 99 won nine races last year, most of them were won because they had a good race car, but a lot of them were won because Bob Osborne was on top of his game with his strategy," McReynolds said. "[At Texas], I don't think anybody thought he could go that far on fuel. But obviously he thought they could, and they did."
The longest driver/crew chief marriage in Sprint Cup ended after more than a decade last year when
He assumed one of the highest-profile jobs in racing at age 26 when he replaced
One of the greatest traits a crew chief can have, Evernham joked, is having
Gustafson thrived with Kyle Busch two years ago (finishing fifth in points even after Busch announced he was leaving HMS), struggled with
Knaus calls him "one of the best out there." McReynolds calls him an example of the importance of chemistry between driver and crew chief.
"We all know that
He took Mark Martin into the Chase for the Championship three times, and later led
The old salt (55) won a championship in 2004 with Kurt Busch, and although it wasn't always a fun ride, he deflected negative attention from his driver when he could, focusing on the work. After a fruitful run with Martin and Busch, he took on a reclamation projects with
"He's been doing it so many years, and he seems to be one of the old-school crew chiefs that has been able to keep up with an ever-changing, ever-moving sport," McReynolds said.
Knaus said he admires what Guy has done -- qualifying for six races, finishing 15th at Talladega with
"If you look at the performance of what this team does with the 78 car, with their limited schedule, I think