Chad Knaus tops list of NASCAR's best crew chiefs

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Ray Evernham knew he liked the Knaus kid from his first days on the job. Then the crew chief of Jeff Gordon's No. 24 Chevrolet, Evernham sensed the young man's burning ambition, and he liked it -- a lot.

"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 Jimmie Johnson.

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 Darrell Waltrip, everyone knows the man atop the pit box is in command. The only Johnson-Knaus squabble that escaped the bubble of the Hendrick campus occurred in 2005 when, during the final race, Knaus failed to heed Johnson's warnings that he had a tire problem. Johnson crashed when the tire gave, and sunk to fifth in the final standings.

"I think Chad Knaus is like Vince Lombardi or Bear Bryant," said Waltrip, asserting that Knaus could win with any driver. "They don't care who the quarterback is. They think as long as they do their system, they're going to win.

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 Carl Edwards, is renowned for his adroit race-calling and the confidence he instills in his team, including his driver.

"I like the way Bob Osborne calls a race," Evernham said. "He's like the ultimate tactician. He's a guy who has it figured out. 'We're going to do this: Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. This is how we're going to end up.'"

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 Larry McReynolds, a former crew chief and current FOX Sports racing analyst.

"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 Tony Stewart left Greg Zipadelli -- with whom he won two championships -- and Joe Gibbs Racing to begin his own team. Stewart and Zipadelli were friends who thrived in each other's company, though the crew chief had to deal with the distraction of his driver's volatility. Now Zipadelli is in charge of grooming 18-year-old wunderkind Joey Logano into JGR's next star. The results are encouraging, with top 10s in two of his past three races, displaying Zipadelli's adaptability and skill in holding the team together.

He assumed one of the highest-profile jobs in racing at age 26 when he replaced Robbie Loomis -- who was leaving for an executive position at Petty Enterprises -- as Jeff Gordon's crew chief late in the 2005 season. Another in the long line of Evernham disciples who began his career at Hendrick Motorsports sweeping floors as a teen, Letarte was instantly under pressure, although Gordon was already mired in what passed for a slump. Gordon professed total support of his young, understated leader as they struggled at times, and they've built their program back into a title contender. They led the standings with three races left in 2007, but Jimmie Johnson won four of the final five races to steal away what would have been Gordon's fifth championship.

One of the greatest traits a crew chief can have, Evernham joked, is having Kyle Busch as a driver. Check. But even a magician like the talented Busch needs something to work with. On most afternoons Addington gives it to him -- as evidenced by his three wins and four top 5s. And on the days he doesn't, his steady leadership and obvious high temper threshold allow him to hold the team together, and make modifications when Busch's impatience manifests itself in radio venom.

Gustafson thrived with Kyle Busch two years ago (finishing fifth in points even after Busch announced he was leaving HMS), struggled with Casey Mears last season and looks like a genius again with his childhood hero, Mark Martin, in his race car. Martin has won twice in 11 events so far -- matching his best total since the 1999 season -- and looks very much like a title contender.

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 Dale Earnhardt was probably the most awesome driver to ever grip the wheel of a Sprint Cup series car, but him and I just did not click, no matter how hard we'd try, whatever we did," McReynolds said. "I don't think it's coincidental that the drivers I had the most success with were the drivers I had the best and closest relationship with, and that was Davey Allison and Ernie Irvan."

He took Mark Martin into the Chase for the Championship three times, and later led Greg Biffle's program. Now he has helped resurrect Kurt Busch's career.

Paired with Jeff Burton since 2006, the 51-year-old veteran of several two-wheel and open wheel regimens guided his team to a win in the All-star week pit crew challenge. Among his six career wins was the 2003 Darlington spring race when Ricky Craven won for single-car PPI Motorsports.

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 Jamie McMurray and a tutorial role at Roush Fenway with David Ragan.

"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 Regan Smith with a part-time team based in Denver, far from NASCAR's nerve center in Charlotte.

"If you look at the performance of what this team does with the 78 car, with their limited schedule, I think Jay Guy does a very good job," he said. "From where they're based, what they have to try to overcome, I think they do a fantastic job."