Chad Knaus climbed down so he could step up.
Hendrick Motorsports’ crew chief-turned-vice president traded in his fire suit for a dress suit when he took over as competition director in 2021. He was hands-on. Now, he’s hands-off.
“The first couple of races it was really, really awkward,” Knaus told NASCAR.com. “I’m trying to figure out where I fit. Where can I stand, where can I not stand? How I should contribute. How do I engage, how do I not engage?
“Crew chiefs, I know this from experience, they don’t like a lot of input from folks that think they know what’s going on. Because guys a lot of time in my position, we feel like we’re in the know of what’s going on. But the truth is the field generals, the crew chiefs, they’re the ones that really know what’s going on. And we just kind of muddy up the waters sometimes.”
RELATED: Chad Knaus’ racing career highlights
Knaus spent 19 years atop a Hendrick Motorsports pit box. That tenure began with driver Jimmie Johnson in 2002. Together, they won a record-tying seven championships and 81 races with the No. 48 Chevrolet. In 2019, Knaus switched to the No. 24 team and worked with sophomore William Byron, who scored his first career win on Aug. 29, 2020. Knaus’ promotion was announced exactly a month later but was not effective until season’s end.
A 50-year-old father of two, Knaus no longer felt the need to be a NASCAR crew chief — a dream he had since his first amateur gig at age 14 for his dad. He was ready for a change. Then, when that change did occur, Knaus described his new post as daunting, overwhelming and frightening, which somehow made it comforting.
“I’ve always operated with some level of fear in my life — fear of being able to not win the race, fear am I going to be able to continue, fear am I going to be able to win another race,” Knaus said. “All these things, right? And some people may think that’s kind of sick, but it’s true. Like I’ve always operated that I was afraid I wasn’t going to be successful. So when I took on this role, that heightened that emotion again and I think that’s why I felt pretty comfortable.”
The reverse discomfort stems from the increase in Knaus’ responsibilities. Before, as crew chief, worries were contained within a single stall. Competition director oversees the technical development of the entire garage.
That doesn’t mean Knaus is involved in every decision with every team. More so, he identifies and assesses areas for improvement then passes on that intel to engineers, crew chiefs or other staff members for implementation. That handoff remains rather difficult for Knaus, who’s admittedly an immediate-impact type of person.
“He has learned, too, that he’s got to spread his knowledge,” team owner Rick Hendrick said. “He can’t just focus on one car. He’s got to be focusing on four cars. That’s been a step for him. But he’s just accepted it. I’ve just watched him mature. Not mature, that’s not the right word, but I’ve watched him work into being a leader of many people rather than a leader of a few.”
The managerial scope has broadened, and that’s why Knaus can and must share the burden. There are too many tasks to see them all individually through. Because on top of the four mini teams inside the big team, Knaus is also involved in Hendrick Motorsports’ manufacturer alliance, pit-crew division and other partnerships outside the shop itself.
An increase in relationships bodes well for Knaus considering he has realized he’s at a point in his life where he’d rather help others succeed than capture the checkered flag himself. His desire to be competitive didn’t fade. It evolved.
“He’s got a tremendous passion, and he bleeds that passion out into the shop and the folks that he works with and the folks that he touches,” general manager Jeff Andrews said. “He pushed them every day to be better. Subsequently, that pushes our race cars to be better.”
Hendrick Motorsports won the overall championship and 17 of the 36 points-paying races in 2021. Kyle Larson was responsible for the title and 10 victories. Alex Bowman added four wins. Chase Elliott contributed two. Byron had one.
Out of all those wins — most of any organization — there’s only one Knaus called a “super successful weekend,” and that’s Dover International Speedway in May. Hendrick Motorsports finished 1-2-3-4. Literally could not ask for better results.
Otherwise, there was always at least one team that could have performed better. When the race ends, Knaus’ job begins.
“There’s not one emotion that these guys are going through that I haven’t lived,” Knaus said. “Whether it be winning a race, falling out of the playoffs, having a bad pit stop, winning a championship — all of it — I’ve lived it all, fortunate enough to live it all over the years I did. So, I hope that makes everybody understand that when I am trying to help them out that I’m doing it from a place of honesty and really wanting to be somebody in their corner.”