NASCAR Media Conference
May 13, 2009
HERB BRANHAM: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to this week's NASCAR teleconference. It's a special opportunity for media in advance of Thursday night's NASCAR Sprint Pit Crew Challenge presented by Craftsman. That event is in Charlotte, North Carolina, at the Time Warner Cable Arena. Our guest today, the perfect competitor to talk about this event. We're joined by the crew chief for the three-time defending and reigning championship team in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Chad Knaus.
Chad, thanks for joining us. The Pit Crew Challenge continues to grow in popularity among the fans. Great event. How important is the event to your crew and really all the over-the-wall guys who are sort of the unsung heroes in NASCAR?
CHAD KNAUS: Well, you know, first off thanks for having me today. But I think it's a big deal, it really is. I think the emphasis that these people put on the individual position competition is pretty high. Our guys have been working on it. They keep it in the backs of their minds throughout the whole year long, trying to think of how they improve and do a better job in that competition, whether it be from the push standpoint, where the team goes down to push the car, and how they fall in, get into position to get the car rolling as fast as possible, to when they're fuelling the cars or changing the tires in the individual competition. It's in the backs of their minds.
They'll be practicing a week mid summer for the pit crew competition. They're always aware of it and I think it's a great thing. I was real fortunate back in the mid '90s to be able to be a part of the competition that we had at Rockingham. It was a cool thing to do then, but it was just kind of like a round-robin type competition where you were eliminated. If you didn't have the fastest pit stop, you were pretty much out.
The thing that this competition allows, thankfully from Sprint NASCAR putting it on, it focuses on the individual instead of the whole team. That narrows it down and puts the pressure on the guy. I think every guy that's on a pit crew to some degree wants to be the guy. He's always the guy that said, Throw me the ball, let me make it happen and make myself responsible for what's going to happen. If he can make it happen, then good for him. That's kind of what this is about and it's good for them because it's easy for everybody to say we've won the race because of Jimmie Johnson, Rick Hendrick or myself. But the fact of the matter is it takes every single one of us to do our jobs to the best of our ability in order to pull it off. They don't always get the accolades they truly deserve.
HERB BRANHAM: Thanks for that opener, Chad. We're going to go to the media for questions for today's guest, Chad Knaus.
Q. How difficult is it on a crew chief to go into a race like the All-Star Race knowing it's a piece you massaged on, worked and worked on, there's a good chance it will wind up in a heap of junk by the time the night is over?
CHAD KNAUS: Oh, boy. You know, that's fine 'cause we've got that chance every time we go on the racetrack, whether it's practice, qualifying or a race, which we showed last week at Darlington. That's a natural risk that comes along with our sport. It's just part of it.
Ultimately, if you really think about it, to say that you're building a sacrificial lamb to go into the All-Star Race is probably even less true than you would say if you're going to Talladega, because at Talladega you have a better risk of wrecking than what you do at a place like Lowe's Motor Speedway.
I'm not really that concerned about that. What we're concerned about is going out there and representing Lowe's and trying to win this All-Star Race, because that's a race that we've been fortunate enough to win once while it was the Winston and once while it was the All-Star event. We would love to do it again and bring the trophy back here to Hendrick Motorsports.
Q. You and your team have won three straight Sprint Cup championships. Has team chemistry played a role in that success?
CHAD KNAUS: Well, of course. I think that if you look at the cohesiveness of our team, it's at an all-time high. We've been able to work together. We've made changes to our group throughout the years, which you have to do. People change. People want to get married, have kids, come off the road, whatever the situation may be. So we've made changes. But we've been able to keep guys on our team for a long period of time.
I think the understanding and the communication level between everybody on our team, not just Jimmie and myself, stays at an all-time high by keeping people for long periods of time. Most of guys on our team are three-to-four to even some of them seven- or eight-year veterans of the Lowe's team. That's a good thing.
It's easy to work alongside somebody after you've done it for such a long time, work alongside them, know what it is they're going to do, what their next step is. I think if you look at any good sports team, that's typically what happens.
Q. I'd like to ask you about next week's Coke 600. Watching you on the pit box, it's pretty amazing to see how you coach the team throughout that race, not only the crew members and everybody behind the wall, but also your driver Jimmie Johnson. How do you go into that race and coach them to manage the entire 600 miles of that race?
CHAD KNAUS: Well, you know, that's tough. It is tough. It's a long, long race. Obviously starting in the evening hours, going to twilight and into the nighttime, it's difficult to keep everybody focused and ready to go for that period of time.
But the one thing that we're real fortunate about is our team relies on one another. As Jimmie gets into a position, losing a little bit of momentum, I think I do a good job of picking him back up, getting him focused. If I have an issue like that to where I'm starting to get drawn out or tired, the guys and Jimmie do a good job of picking me back up. I do the same for the pit crew. We work together to support one another as a group. That way the responsibility isn't like on one individual person. We definitely spread that about, not by design but by everybody wanting to work together and trying to achieve the same goal.
Q. It seems like you, more than any other crew chief, is willing to take a lot more risks on pit road trying to work on the car at any time during the race. Do you think you'd be able to do that with any other driver or does that take the chemistry and confidence you and Jimmie have to take those risks during the race?
CHAD KNAUS: I think obviously having a driver of the caliber of Jimmie definitely plays into our hands, you know, being able to do stuff like that, knowing he's not going to go out there and typically wreck a racecar.
I think it's a mindset that you have to establish going into a race or into a season knowing that if we don't have the best racecar, we've got to work on it early. That way at the end of the race we can put ourselves in position to get a top five, top 10 or potentially even win a race. We really focus hard on trying to get our car right early and then working on getting the track position and where we need to be at the end of the race to go for the good finish.
I think a lot of teams could probably do that. Maybe you're right. Maybe it's got something to do with the driver and the pit crew, them not being able to follow through with that.
Q. Who do you consider the best crew chiefs in the business right now, taking into account everything from getting a car ready to the quality with which they strategize a race?
CHAD KNAUS: The ones in the garage right now?
Q. Yes, current guys.
CHAD KNAUS: I would say Alan Gustafson is one of the best out there. I think Steve Letarte does a good job. I think if you look at Greg Zipadelli, he does a very good job. I think one of the guys that I've enjoyed watching over the years grow would be Shiplett from the 43 car. I think he does a very good job. And I think, honestly, 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. From where they're based, what they have to try to overcome, I think they do a fantastic job. Then you have your normal guys, Zipadelli, Steve Addington, guys like that that are obviously superstars in their own right and just fantastic crew chiefs.
I think it's difficult to say who's the best until you look at each individual situation and what they're working with, and then you can probably break that down yourself.
Q. How many different components go into the job from amateur psychologist with the driver to working on the car? Must be millions of facets to it.
CHAD KNAUS: Yeah, there are. I think a manager, coach, psychologist, like you said, is probably some of the biggest things that you have to learn to deal with, especially in today's day and age, with the amount of people we have that put these teams through the paces, make them all work.
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. 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.
Q. How much are y'all interacting with the crew chiefs and technical types over at Stewart-Haas Racing this year?
CHAD KNAUS: Well, I mean, just as much as we ever have. We've always been really close with those guys. Bootie Barker, obviously who was over there last year, he and I have a good relationship, would communicate quite often. But Darian Grubb obviously going over there straight from Hendrick Motorsports has opened up that line of communication a little bit more maybe than what we did last year.
As far as what they've got for tools and how the information flow goes back and forth is no different than what we've had in the past. Quite honestly it's quite a lot. They get just about everything that we've got.
Q. This year they benefited from being affiliated with y'all. Have y'all benefited from being associated with them lately?
CHAD KNAUS: You know, I think that will come more so. But obviously the more people you've got that you can draw information from, whether the information be good or bad, only makes you the wiser. We haven't gotten huge fruit from that yet, but I can promise you with Darian and Tony, those guys over there, we'll definitely get it.
Q. You talked about the crew chiefs being multi-talented as coach and technician. As far as your team goes, what do you coach and what can't you coach?
CHAD KNAUS: I'm sorry, be a little more specific. I guess I don't understand.
Q. As far as the ability of your pit crew guys, what can you coach that you know you can coach and what do they have to have to even be able to do that basically? What part can't you coach?
CHAD KNAUS: Yeah, it's difficult to coach, you know, pure talent and pure athleticism. It's hard. For a pit crew guy, it's very, very difficult. You've got to have a special type of person. People think about let's say a guy like Manny Rodriguez, Terrell Owens, Brett Favre, these guys that are superstars but they're a handful to handle. They're maybe a little overconfident, a little more star like gathers people that are trying to draw attention to themselves. Those guys are the stars because they're good at what they do. And you have to have a little bit of that to be a really, really successful team member instead of an individual.
Those guys are individual. What we try to build is a team. So you need every guy to have just a little bit of ego, a little bit of that flair thinking that he's the best in his position, but he's got to have enough to where he doesn't feel like he's the star player of the team. Because if you have a guy that's a tire changer or a jack man that thinks he's the guy and he's the reason the whole thing's working, it won't work as a team and you won't have the long-term success that you really need for a team.
You can't coach that in somebody. That's something you have to have. You can't take a guy that's got a huge ego and think he's a superstar and bring him back down to make him think he's a team player very often. That's probably one of the hardest things to get out there.
Q. Which is more difficult for you to attain, the people skills or the mechanical skills?
CHAD KNAUS: For me personally?
CHAD KNAUS: For me personally, the mechanical skills came very, very easy. You know, I've been working on racecars my whole life. That's all I've ever done. Thank God I fell into this job because if I didn't, I don't know what I'd be doing (laughter). The people skills, I think that's something that I've had to learn and establish over the years.
Mr. Hendrick has helped me tremendously with that, along with my driver Jimmie. Robbie Loomis was a huge impact in my life as far as helping me learn what and how to get the best out of people without being quite as direct as I used to be. I know Christine is on here and I get her full of stuff because I'm too direct from time to time. The people skills is the most difficult thing for anybody in life, no matter what your profession.
Q. Back to team chemistry. What are some of the ways in which poor team chemistry can manifest itself on a team?
CHAD KNAUS: Well, I think it's just like this. Let's talk about momentum for a second. Everybody talks about, okay, if you go out and you win a race, get a bunch of top fives, people start saying, That team has momentum, they're doing well, they're going to continue to go on and do some great things. It's exactly the same thing. Just like momentum and good spirits are contagious, the poor chemistry and the poor attitudes are just as equally as contagious. If you've got a bad apple, just like the old saying says, a bad apple spoils a barrel. It's the exact same thing. It's difficult to manage that, it really is, especially in the high pressure of what we are trying to do.
You know, you look at some of the pit stops we've had this year, not we personally with the 48, but I'm talking we as an industry, there have been race-deciding pit stops to where it has taken teams out of a race. That's a lot of pressure on those guys. You know, it's not like it used to be. Used to be they would say, Oh, the 48 had a bad pit stop, or the 2 car had a bad pit stop. Now they're calling these guys out by name. The rear tire changer so-and-so had a bad pit stop, they put his face on camera. It's something new for these guys and it's very difficult for them. From a bad attitude to a low self-esteem, all those things are very, very difficult to overcome.
Q. Is it accurate to assume with the COT you can only do so much in building a tricked-up car for the All-Star Race? What have you learned from the All-Star Race that you are going to apply on the weekend?
CHAD KNAUS: If you look at the practice schedule we've got for the 600 and for the All-Star Race, the practices are during the day. So the All-Star Race is a great time for us to try the setup that we want to run in the 600, at least to a degree, and get some knowledge on it as far as tuning it, how it's going to react, what's going to happen to the car. This racetrack at Lowe's changes so, so much. Even if just cloud cover comes over the top of it, it changes from daylight to cloud cover to twilight to nighttime. It's a huge swing. So it's a good opportunity for us to learn the tuning of the car.
Q. You're going for your fourth championship this year. Is the pressure any different than in previous years or does it really feel similar to maybe last year in '07? How is Mr. H feeling?
CHAD KNAUS: As far as the pressure, you know, I think that we've done a good job personally as a team to not allow outside influence really to apply any pressure to us. The pressure that we feel, and I really think I can speak for all of the 48 team, the pressure we feel as a team is only pressure that we put on ourselves. There really isn't a whole lot of pressure on us, especially at this point of the season. All we want to do is make sure that we make the Chase and that we've got a good product going into the Chase. That's where we're at right now. So I don't think that there's a whole lot more there at all over what we've had in past years.
As far as Mr. Hendrick, I spent yesterday with him. I was with him for about five hours yesterday. He's looking great. He feels good. We had a big deal here yesterday at Hendrick Motorsports to where everybody on the complex got a replica championship ring. He and Jimmie and I stood in our fan viewing area with a Lowe's Impala SS and three trophies, three Cup trophies, and got our photograph taken with each one of them. So it was a lot of fun yesterday and we enjoyed that.
So he'll probably be at the racetrack this weekend at some point.
HERB BRANHAM: All right. First of all thanks to Chad Knaus. Really appreciate you taking the time out. Best of luck Thursday night in the NASCAR Sprint Pit Crew Challenge presented by Craftsman. Also best of luck at the All-Star Race and, of course, the Coca-Cola 600.
CHAD KNAUS: Thank you, sir. I appreciate it. Hope everybody has a great couple weeks here in Charlotte.
HERB BRANHAM: Thanks to all the media. Great turnout for Chad Knaus. As always, we truly appreciate the coverage.
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