With the high likelihood of Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus and Hendrick Motorsports winning an unprecedented fourth consecutive championship this weekend, I thought back eight years to my first brief brush with Knaus on June 24, 2001.
It was a sunny and warm raceday at Sears Point (nee Infineon) Raceway in Sonoma, only two weeks before Dale Jr. would score a dramatic and emotional victory at Daytona. The confidence level was never very high at the California road course, so the Budweiser team and driver seemed almost relieved to score a lead-lap finish in 19th place, despite several late-race, off-course excursions.
“God a’mighty!," Dale Jr. laughed on the radio during his cool-down lap. "Those last couple o’ laps were crazier than hell! I came into the hairpin coming to the white flag and it was just a wall of dirt and smoke and shit all over the place. I just tried to get through it…”
As he pulled toward the team hauler, the first thing Dale Jr. asked for was a towel. In hot, dry weather, he would occasionally get a nose bleed inside the racecar. He took his helmet off and began to wipe away blood when he quickly and urgently said to me: "Here comes Stacy Compton! Stand right here -- just in case!"
Just in case of what I was unsure, but I suspected the possibility of some post-race aggression.
It seems Dale Jr. had provided some final-lap, extra-curricular contact on Compton, who dropped to the 24th position driving for the underdog No. 92 Melling team. Compton strode up the red No. 8 car as I stepped aside slightly, bracing myself to somehow leap into action if needed.
"I didn't mean to get into you," Dale Jr. replied. "I was just holding my line!"
"Well, we don't race each other like that. That's bullshit! (Or perhaps something stronger but closely resembling that remark). We've always raced each other clean, and I'll remember that!," spat Compton as he stood and walked away.
Junior quietly chuckled and began to unhook his seat belts, then said warily, "Oh no, here comes his little crew chief. Stay right there."
Enter Chad Knaus, then a rookie crew chief with the Melling team, who walked, notebooks in hand, toward the car and saw Dale Jr. with a bloodied towel.
"Did he hit you?!" Knaus snapped.
"Naw," Junior drawled, bracing for a tongue lashing or worse from the tightly wound crew chief.
After climbing out of the car, Junior shook his head and laughed about the intense crew chief. "That was... strange." he said.