AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Shortly before Jimmie Johnson rolled out for practice at Phoenix International Raceway, someone was missing from the group making last-minute adjustments to Johnson's car: crew chief Chad Knaus.
Two years ago it would have been unlikely that Knaus, a self-admitted control freak, would have left the garage while his team tuned up Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet.
But Knaus was sitting in the team hauler for an interview, explaining how the changes he's made to curb his near-slavish devotion to work are one reason Johnson is poised to win his second consecutive championship.
"The [team's] mind-set is probably a lot calmer, and the confidence is there knowing that we can do it," Knaus said.
Knaus (pronounced ke-nouse) might no longer be the workaholic of old, but one part of him hasn't changed: A desire to test the limits of NASCAR's rules. Depending on whom you ask, Knaus is either stock-car racing's most aggressive crew chief or its most blatant cheater.
Twice in the last two years NASCAR has suspended Knaus for several races for breaking the rules, although Knaus rejects the cheater label, contending that it's his job to probe gray areas in NASCAR's rule book to gain an edge.
Either way, his results are not in dispute. Johnson leads the Cup standings by 30 points over his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon heading into today's Checker Auto Parts 500 here, the next-to-last race to decide the series title.
Johnson, an El Cajon native who starts sixth today, vaulted into the points lead after winning the last three races -- twice with the help of shrewd pit-stop calls by Knaus -- and has a series-high nine wins this season.
Over the last six years, Johnson and Knaus have combined to win 32 races and have 132 top-10 finishes, more than any other active driver-crew chief team in the Cup series.
"Chad has done a remarkable job," said rival driver Jeff Burton of Richard Childress Racing. "They're a team with swagger."
Knaus, 36, in some ways is NASCAR's version of Bill Belichick, the detail-oriented coach of the New England Patriots who also takes risks. Belichick drew a $500,000 fine from the NFL two months ago after his team videotaped rival coaches' hand signals during a game, actions he likewise called a misinterpretation of the rules.
In NASCAR, Knaus said that "if you're going to be successful in this sport then you have to really push to make your race cars faster."
But as the 2005 season ended -- and Johnson, for the third time, narrowly missed winning his first title -- Knaus' intensity and controlling ways were out of control.
Team owner Rick Hendrick, Johnson and Knaus had long talks about "the way that I was pressing and trying to control too much," Knaus recalled. "Some of the guys were getting frustrated. They were wanting to get a little more responsibility."
Johnson in effect told him to chill out -- at least a little.
"He made me realize there's a lot more to life than work," Knaus said. "It's something that took years to really sink in. It wasn't the way I was brought up, it wasn't the way I had raced in any part of my career."
Johnson said "honesty has been a huge, huge help for us. There are times when he drives me crazy and I want to kill him. I'm sure it goes back the other way. But we have a lot of history and a lot of respect for one another and we find a way to make it work."
There were rumors that Johnson and Knaus were close to parting ways at the end of 2005. Now, "we've got a phenomenal friendship," Knaus said. "We e-mail, we call, we text, we see each other, we go places together" such as playing golf, Knaus said. "He truly is one of my best friends. It wasn't too long ago I really didn't have any best friends."
Knaus seemed destined to be a crew chief from an early age.
His father John drove minor league late-model race cars and by age 14 Chad was his crew chief. After high school, the younger Knaus moved to North Carolina and Hendrick hired him in 1993 to help with the No. 24 Chevrolet driven by a rookie named Jeff Gordon, with Ray Evernham as crew chief.
After Gordon won Cup titles in 1995 and 1997, Knaus left to work for other teams. But in late 2001, Hendrick re-hired him to be crew chief for another newcomer from California: Jimmie Johnson.
"For the last three years, you could make a case that they've done it better than anyone else," said Evernham, who now co-owns his own team.
But not without controversy.
After Johnson qualified for the Daytona 500 last year, NASCAR found his rear window had been doctored to improve the car's aerodynamics.
NASCAR suspended Knaus for four races. Johnson then won the prestigious race without Knaus, who watched it on TV at home.
When he returned to the track, Knaus conceded he had "made a mistake." But today he rejects the oft-repeated claim that the suspension is what made him a changed man.
"That's a misconception," he said. "It had nothing to do with Daytona."
Knaus and Hendrick already had taken steps to let other crew members "take control of their areas, to where they felt like they were a larger part of the team," he said. "That was in place prior to Daytona."
Regardless, Knaus -- along with Gordon's crew chief Steve Letarte -- landed in NASCAR's doghouse again last June at Sonoma.
NASCAR ruled that, before qualifying, they made illegal changes to the cars' front fenders for aerodynamic gain, and suspended both crew chiefs for six races.
Knaus acknowledged that the teams tweaked the fenders "in an area where we thought we might be able to find more front down force" to make the cars go faster, he said.
And it's a scenario that could happen again, regardless of whether Johnson wins back-to-back titles.
Said Knaus: "If there's something out there that's going to make our car faster and it is not written in that rule book, we're going to explore it."