How milk and cookies saved the Jimmie Johnson-Chad Knaus partnership

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Before six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus got started on their shared reign of dominance atop the sport, the duo almost broke apart over their respective egos.

But then their boss, team owner Rick Hendrick, called a meeting between them – complete with milk, cookies, and the edict that nobody was leaving the room until everybody had been honest with themselves.

The “milk and cookies” meeting has long been common knowledge, but still holds a degree of notoriety considering what happened on the track after it took place. Johnson, imbued with calm, California cool, and Knaus, imbued with never-ending intensity, have since gone on to stake their claim as one of the greatest driver/crew chief combos in NASCAR history.

“For me, it comes down to respect and trust,” Johnson tells NBCSports.com’s Joe Posnanski in today’s edition of The Big Read. “I think Chad and I always respected each other…But I don’t know that we trusted each other as much as we needed to in those early days. I don’t know that we felt like the other person was always being completely honest.”

But the meeting was able to let both Johnson and Knaus know the importance of communication and being forthright with each other.

“We have had a lot of painful conversations,” Knaus said. “Nothing is out of bounds. We have had fights about attitude, work ethic, dedication, tough things like that.

“I think we can to realize that it’s OK to ask hard questions if you believe the answer you’re going to get.”

As Posnanski writes, drivers like Johnson wants controllable cars and crew chiefs like Knaus want fast cars. That conflict never goes away and it can rip a team apart and ruin a season.

But while Johnson and Knaus still have their differences from time to time, they’re smart enough to know that the greater good is more important than whatever individual desires they have respectively.

And they’re also smart enough to know that they compliment the other very well – Knaus bringing his mechanical talents that squeeze extra speed out of the car, and Johnson bringing his almost supernatural feel for driving those cars.

Together, they’ve managed to become the team that’s always that little bit ahead of their competition. They’ve become a team that is destined to be remembered for many, many years to come.

All of that – from milk and cookies.

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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