Gil Martin, crew chief for contender Kevin Harvick, playfully but properly assessed the “David-vs.-Goliath task” confronting both Harvick and Matt Kenseth at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday.
The best way to reinject drama into their quest to overtake Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet team for the 2013 Sprint Cup championship, Martin quipped after Harvick’s victory at Phoenix, would be to “lock Jimmie in a Porta-Potty” before the start of the climactic Ford EcoBoost 400.
What everybody in the NASCAR garage area knows, however, is that they had better lock Chad Knaus in there with him.
The Johnson-Knaus-Hendrick Motorsports juggernaut stands a 23rd-place finish or better from clinching its first Sprint Cup title since 2010 but its sixth in the past eight years.
That would leave Johnson just one shy of the seven-championship record shared by NASCAR icons Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
What’s more, Knaus comments Tuesday in a conference call suggest there’s no respite for rivals in the near future. This equates to a “break up the Yankees” moment in NASCAR history.
Four-time champion Jeff Gordon and crew chief Ray Evernham enjoyed a comparable decade of success in the 1990s. Though Gordon won his fourth title with Robbie Loomis calling the shots, Evernham’s shift to team ownership after Gordon’s 1999 title ended a magical partnership.
Knaus deflected any suggestion that the most successful driver-crew chief tandem in NASCAR history might have an end game on the agenda.
Asked how long they could sustain the draining intensity required to joust for the Cup championship year after year after year as they have, Knaus said, “I hope for a while yet.”
What would be his next career step in the sport? “I don’t know what the next step is,” he responded, seemingly caught off guard by any suggestion there is one. To laughter, he added, “Mr. [Rick] Hendrick doesn’t give me enough time off work to actually think about anything other than [the next race].”
No one who has watched in wonder as Johnson and Knaus have etched this evolving portrait of mind-blowing excellence believes that Knaus ever needs to be prodded.
His obsessive quest for perfection clearly drives the No. 48 operation, and it was evident in the way he shrugged off reference to dominance.
“Man, we lose a heck of a lot more races than we win,” he said, “and that’s taxing on everybody.”
Martin and Jason Ratcliff, the crew chief behind Kenseth’s seven-victory and career-best season for Joe Gibbs Racing, recognize that the prospect of the No. 48 team making the gaffe that would open the door to an upset for the crown Sunday are slim and none.
Both felt compelled to sound the theme, proven repeatedly in the ultra-competitive Cup series, that “anything can happen” with 43 cars zipping around Homestead’s 1.5-mile oval in tight quarters at speeds eclipsing 175 mph.
But no matter what the finale has in store for the three teams, Ratcliff said of the No. 48 outfit, “That’s a dynasty. We see this in all forms of sport. [They’re] the benchmark.”
Martin indirectly referenced the fact that the Johnson-Knaus relationship launched with Johnson’s 2002 rookie season hasn’t been without stress and occasional rancor. Hendrick has said that when he called them into the familiar post-2005 “milk-and-cookies” meeting to smooth over differences, he thought he would have to assign Knaus to a different Hendrick team.
However, added Martin, who has been with Richard Childress Racing since 2000, their success has evolved because “they have been able to endure [early] years together.” They worked through inevitable pitfalls and tension and that experience is “something you can’t replace.
“You can put great crew chiefs and great drivers together, but if they don’t know each other’s personality and don’t know what it takes to make that guy tick from weekend to weekend, it’s hard,” Martin said.
“I look at it as the dating stage, the holding-hands stage that you have to go through with somebody new. They’re past that.”
Five championships going on six past that.
Knaus scoffed at the idea that it ever might get old for him. “I live for these last 10 weeks [the Chase for the Cup],” he said. “Once we get through these 10 weeks, I can’t wait to get through the next 26 [of the 2014 regular season] so I can get back to these 10 weeks again next year.”