The 2021 resurgence of Hendrick Motorsports has dovetailed with Chad Knaus in his first year as vice president of competition — and reshaping how the team processes driver feedback.
The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series championship crew chief was known for his car wizardry during a Hall of Fame career with Jimmie Johnson and undoubtedly is having a major impact on the improvement of Hendrick’s Camaros this season. But Knaus also has been instrumental in restructuring the weekly postrace debriefs in which Hendrick Motorsports drivers and crew chiefs assess the previous race.
Under Knaus, the meetings have been streamlined from a few dozen team members to a much smaller audience of the team’s eight drivers and crew chiefs, plus Knaus, general manager Jeff Andrews and Jeff Gordon (and team president Marshall Carlson and owner Rick Hendrick if they choose to attend).
“Quite honestly, in the last few years, I feel like we’ve asked our crew chiefs to maybe do too much, and be a part of too many meetings, and we’ve really parsed it down,” Knaus told NBC Sports in a recent interview. “Think of it like this: The drivers and the crew chiefs almost would come and be on trial the last handful of years about, ‘Why didn’t we run well? Why didn’t you run well? Why didn’t you run this setup? Why didn’t you drive with this much brake and that much throttle.’ And I really wanted to try to get away from that.
“So we’ve parsed it down and made it really intimate. And we sit down and have pure dialogue with a smaller group. Myself and Jeff Andrews, we try to just get the key points and the bullets and make sure we got everything going and distribute that to the folks that need to know.”
With the departure of Jimmie Johnson and arrival of Kyle Larson, Hendrick has four drivers in their 20s, all of whom are relatively soft-spoken and have far less experience than Johnson and Gordon (who was regarded as a vocal leader during his 23 Cup seasons with Hendrick).
But the absence of an outspoken star seemingly hasn’t been missed in the debriefs at Hendrick. The team has won seven of 16 races this season (including four consecutive, plus Sunday’s All-Star Race win by Larson) with every driver visiting victory lane at least once (Larson has three points wins; Alex Bowman, 2, and Chase Elliott and William Byron have one apiece).
“You know Chad Knaus is in that meeting right,” Bowman said with a laugh on NASCAR America MotorMouths last month when asked by analyst Steve Letarte about whether a certain driver was leading the debriefs. “He’s really taken over those meetings and does a really good job leading and extracting information from some quiet personalities.
“I’m probably the most quiet of the four, but Larson and William are pretty quiet, and Chase calls in most of the time because he doesn’t live here full time, so he is over the phone. So it’s just one of those deals. I feel like Chad has to work a little hard to get us to talk sometimes, but it works out all right.”
Knaus said he does take the point in order to make the debriefs more efficient.
“I coach the guys,” he said. “I encourage the guys to have more dialogue. I query the drivers. I query the crew chiefs. I ask them pointed questions. ‘What would you have done differently? How could you have made your car better? What did you think about this strategy? Could you have restarted like this and helped your teammate or vice versa?’
“We have those conversations, but I think it’s a safe environment where they’re comfortable having conversations where they can say, ‘No, I think I did it right,’ or ‘Yeah, maybe we should have done this,’ or ‘Next time, I’m going to do that.’ Or whatever it may be. It’s just been nice.”
Knaus has spent less time on the road this year as his first outside of the crew chief role since 2002 has allowed the father of two more time at home and to pursue other racing passions (he called strategy for Johnson’s Cadillac in the Twelve Hours of Sebring in March and will be working with the same No. 48 Action Express endurance racing team next week for the six-hour IMSA race at Watkins Glen International).
As an employee of Hendrick for nearly 30 years, Knaus, 49, has watched the debriefs through “different phases and levels of communication at Hendrick Motorsports of who needs to be involved and who doesn’t to be involved,” and there are instances in which the slimmed-down debriefs still can trigger more meetings.
“If there’s something that’s a pointed issue, we’ll get together with whoever the proper person is, and we’ll go solve that problem,” Knaus said. “I feel that’s been a little bit better of a cadence for us as opposed to sitting in a room with 30 people where nobody wants to say anything because I think everybody has experienced this: If you have two to three people sitting around a table, you’ll have a better conversation than if you’ve got 30 folks.
“So it’s worked out well — right now. Look man, if we weren’t winning races, everybody would say, ‘You need to have everybody in the room. You have to be communicating to everybody, you need to take a different path,’ and we’d probably go that way. This is the way we’re doing it today right now. How we do it in the future, I have no idea.”