Knaus has Johnson on track to title

Published 9:07 pm Thursday, August 10, 2006

Chad Knaus was on a furious mission two weeks ago, trying to figure out where the tradition of kissing the Yard of Bricks at Indianapolis Motor Speedway began.

He called it lame and unoriginal, and swore his lips would never touch “that dirty old track.”

But when driver Jimmie Johnson grabbed the checkered flag at the Brickyard, his crew chief was practically the first in line to pucker up.

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“I admit it, I thought it was stupid and cheesy,” Knaus sighed. “But you know what happened? With 10 laps to go and it was clear we were going to win that race, the only thing I was thinking about is how much I wanted to kiss those bricks.”

That exact scenario had been presented to Knaus on a rainy Saturday at Pocono Raceway, when he was bitterly criticizing the practice. When told he wouldn’t think twice to lean over and smooch the track surface, he was adamant it was a non-issue.

“We’re not going to win that race, I can promise you that right now,” he grumbled.

Morale was definitely down at that moment, and for good reason. Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team had been snake-bitten at Indy, a place where their past seasons usually began to fall apart. They’d have a firm hold on top of the points standings, only to endure a terrible day at the Brickyard that would send them into a tailspin.

It happened in 2004, when the his motor failed.

Last season was even worse, with Johnson landing in the hospital after a hard wreck left him dazed and unable to remember the accident. He finished 38th and lost his points lead to Tony Stewart, who went on to win the championship.

So past history and a subpar test session had the team bracing for another disaster.

And as the day began, it looked they were exactly right.

The batteries were dead in Johnson’s radio when he climbed into his car.

Then he got a flat tire early in the race that dropped him all the way back to 38th. And as he pulled away following the tire change, a fire broke out in his pit.

Even after overcoming all of that to slice through the field and grab the lead, a caution for debris with 19 laps cost him his track position. Johnson made a four-tire pit stop that dropped him back to eighth on the restart with 14 laps left in the race.

But he deftly maneuvered around the cars in front of him, picking them off one at a time until he was back in front with 10 to go. That’s when Knaus realized the kiss was coming, and he excitedly coaxed his driver home for the second-biggest win of their career. The first came in February in the season-opening Daytona 500, and Johnson has now joined Dale Jarrett as the only driver to win at Daytona and Indianapolis in the same season.