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Published: Tuesday, 11/13/2007

Push, pull keep 24, 48 winning

BY JENNA FRYER
ASSOCIATED PRESS

CORNELIUS, N.C. - Chad Knaus burst through the doors, almost an hour late for a lunch appointment.

"I'll take a bloody mary!" Knaus called from halfway across the room, a distance not great enough to mask his frazzled demeanor from the waiting party.

"That's my boy," Steve Letarte replied from his seat at the table. "Nothing wrong with unwinding a little bit."

Less than 24 hours before they headed to Phoenix for what proved to be a pivotal race in their fight for the Nextel Cup title, the Hendrick Motorsports crew chiefs squeezed in a late lunch and a quick round of nine holes at the local country club.

There's no doubt Knaus would rather have been working, fine-tuning the race cars Jimmie Johnson needs to hold off Jeff Gordon in the race to the championship. But his intense work ethic nearly destroyed him before, and taking time to live a little has become a priority.

It doesn't always come easy, though, and Knaus sometimes needs a swift push from Letarte to get out of the race shop and onto the links.

Don't think, though, that Letarte is the slacker. He most certainly puts his hours in. But with a young family at home and vast interests outside of racing, Letarte recognizes when he's done all he can to get Gordon ready.

Devoting every waking minute, obsessing over the tiniest details, will never guarantee a trip to Victory Lane.

The crew chiefs couldn't be more different, and yet they have so much in common.

It's made them a perfect fit for each other and provided the balance both need to manage the very best race teams in NASCAR. It's also taught them teamwork is always the best strategy - even when you're trying to beat your friend.

Yes, the two have been locked into a tight championship battle for the last three months, but they've refused to let it interfere with what's grown into one of the best working relationships and friendships in the garage.

"We're competitive: Don't think for a minute that we're not," Knaus said.

"It's just that there's a time to be competitive and a time to forget about work for a few hours," Letarte finished.

They've clearly mastered it, combining to win 16 races this season while dominating the points standings all year. Gordon built a lead of more than 300 points during an incredibly consistent "regular season" and Johnson heads into Sunday's finale with a comfortable 86-point margin over his teammate in the title hunt.

It's been a magical season for both teams, and if only there could be two champions.

But there can't be, and Johnson staked his claim on the title by scoring his fourth-straight victory on Sunday in Phoenix to widen the gap over Gordon.

Although Gordon finished a solid 10th, he conceded the title as soon as he got out of his car. A crestfallen Letarte climbed off the pit box and made the long, slow walk back to the garage.

A few hundred yards away, Knaus was subdued. His gain was Letarte's loss, and Knaus just wasn't comfortable reveling in the moment. He quickly credited the hard work and teamwork the two have put in all year, acutely aware that if the 24 and 48 teams didn't work hand in hand, neither would be successful.

Team owner Rick Hendrick struck gold when he put these two crew chiefs together in the same shop late in the 2005 season. Gordon had just missed the Chase and needed a change atop his pit box. The job went to Letarte, 28, who started at Hendrick as a 15-year-old parts assistant while still in high school.

Wise beyond his years, Letarte's carefree attitude sometimes belies the tremendous job he's done in bringing Gordon back to championship form.

Letarte moved into the big chair at a time when Knaus was hanging on for dear life. Despite giving everything he had, he and Johnson had just lost another title and their relationship was in danger of falling apart.

Johnson was weary of Knaus' regimented approach, and the cool Californian needed his crew chief to chill out a bit. If anyone could help him do it, it was Letarte.

Married to a lawyer with two small children at home, Letarte went into the job with his priorities intact. He recognized that no matter how the team performed on Sunday, somebody still had to make breakfast for the kids on Monday.

Trips to Victory Lane are wonderful, but they don't compare to the petting zoo and pumpkin patches. And at the end of a long day, there's nothing wrong with unwinding over a nice dinner with friends and family.

Knaus, who is single but has a longtime girlfriend, isn't wired that way. Small talk can be a struggle when concerns about a setup are running through your head. And who has time for rest and relaxation when preparation for next season isn't complete?

So Letarte pushed him to work just a half-day once a week, dragging him to the golf course for a brief respite. When the wheels didn't fall off the car because Knaus wasn't there to personally oversee their assembly, he finally figured out this thing called living.

The benefits aren't limited to Knaus, either. Letarte, who admittedly isn't always as intense as he needs to be, has someone there to push him when he'd rather just call it a day.

Of course, the pushing maybe can go too far. Knaus is a repeat offender of NASCAR's rules, with numerous suspensions for pushing the envelope - some call it cheating - and walking a very fine line with the inspectors.

And Letarte had a clean record, until he and Knaus manipulated the noses on the Car of Tomorrow before a June race in California. It earned them each a six-week suspension.

"Yup. It's fun getting suspended with a friend," Letarte quipped.

So is winning and losing.



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