SPEEDWAY, Ind. – While the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series was the headline act in Friday’s Brickyard Grand Prix and the capper to Saturday’s show was the Indiana 250 NASCAR Nationwide Series race, the 20th running of the Brickyard 400 is the grand finale of this action-packed weekend at the fabled 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
And the top storyline is Johnson’s quest to become the first five-time winner of this historic race 19 years after his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon became the inaugural Brickyard 400 winner in 1994.
After winning last year’s NASCAR race at the Brickyard in dominant fashion by leading 99 laps this is Johnson’s first attempt to become NASCAR’s winningest driver at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway breaking a tie with Gordon, as both drivers are the only four-time winners of this high-speed contest. And with a commanding lead in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings entering the race, Johnson and his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet team at Hendrick Motorsports is ready to achieve history.
Unlike Gordon, however, success at Indianapolis was not immediate.
“It took me quite a while to figure out the track but I feel that tracks that are unique and quirky, one-of-a-kind tracks, I seem to adapt well to them,” Johnson admitted. “Those are tracks like Martinsville, Dover, Darlington, and the Brickyard. There isn’t a track out there like those.
“In my opinion, once you figure out how to drive those quirky tracks, you’ve got something that doesn’t change. It always takes that line and that rhythm to get it right; and when I show up at the race track, I stay very focused on that particular driving style. We adjust the car to it, and it pays off. So for me, it’s just finding that line; and then once I’ve got it, I seem to own it.
“At the Brickyard, I found it on my own. I found it through a lot of frustrating test sessions, races, a few crashed cars, and then it finally clicked. I don’t remember the exact moment. I do at Martinsville, but I don’t at Indy. It was just one weekend we came back and the light went off in my mind and I’m like, that’s how. And then we won. That was our first win.”
Johnson’s discovery was impressive as the won the 2006 Brickyard 400 – joining Dale Jarrett as the only drivers to win the Daytona 500 at the NASCAR race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the same year.
Behind every great driver, however, is a team that prepares a major piece to the puzzle – a fast race car and a crafty strategy. The man in charge of both is the crew chief and Johnson has the best in the business in Chad Knaus of Rockford, Illinois.
Knaus will take the NASCAR rules to the limit with his innovation, which sometimes may step over the line. That has drawn the ire of NASCAR’s competition department and officials but Knaus is to NASCAR what New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick is to the National Football League.
All these two car about is winning no matter who they royally upset in the process.
“I think quite honestly, all of those victories were so special,” Knaus recalled. “I think last year’s was a lot of fun, from the standpoint of really having a super‑dominant race car, so that was definitely one that stood out.”
Knaus marches to his own beat which is why his favorite Brickyard memory comes in the one race out of the 19 held so far that was easily the most controversial. After all, Knaus and controversy are linked together in NASCAR.
“I think one that was always kind of fun and different was probably not the one that the sport is most likely the happiest about, is when we did have the tire issues up there and we were running out of tires and we were throwing a lot of cautions and we were actually able to maintain and win that race,” Knaus said of the 2008 Brickyard 400 – which remains a lightning rod of controversy because of a major tire problem that developed before and during the race. “That was a lot of fun. I think that was our second one. They are all just so special. It’s such an amazing race track, so much history.”
Johnson remembers a time early in his relationship with Knaus when they used to drink beer and toss horseshoes – simple pleasures for two common men who do extraordinary things. From those early beginnings the greatest driver/crew chief relationship in NASCAR history has developed.
“Well, it’s like any other relationship,” Knaus explained. “It grows and there’s an ebb and flow of good times and bad. Jimmie and I have been very fortunate over the years to get a good appreciation and mutual respect for one another. We expanded on that relationship again this weekend, so we’ve had a few of those opportunities where we’ve been able to have a few beers and play some reindeer games.