When Jimmie Johnson arrived at Daytona Int’l Speedway to open the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule, it marked the beginning of his first season without Chad Knaus as his crew chief.
Knaus and Johnson won seven championships together for Hendrick Motorsports, but the two go their separate ways this year with Johnson working with Kevin Meendering and Knaus calling the shots for second-year Cup Series driver William Byron.
The breakup of Johnson and Knaus is historic. For 17 seasons, this duo worked together, and the accomplishments were impressive, including 81 victories and the aforementioned seven series titles.
It was the second most successful driver/crew chief combination in NASCAR history behind Richard Petty and Dale Inman with 167 wins. Petty won 200 races as a driver.
By comparison, the next winningest driver crew chief tandem in NASCAR history was Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham with 47 wins from 1994-’99.
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Knaus was part of that Gordon/Evernham team when he originally joined Hendrick Motorsports 25 years ago. From 1993 to ’98, Knaus worked under Evernham on body development and was a tire changer on the famed “Rainbow Warriors” pit crew.
Team owner Rick Hendrick believed the time was right to break up Johnson and Knaus for a variety of reasons.
“It’s no secret that Chad and Jimmie have experienced their ups and downs over the years,” Hendrick said. “They’re fierce competitors, great friends and have immense respect for one another. They also fight like brothers. All three of us agree it’s finally time for new challenges and that a change will benefit them and the organization.
“Chad and Jimmie will go down as one of the greatest combinations in sports history,” Hendrick added. “They defied the odds by performing at a championship level for longer than anyone could’ve possibly imagined. What they’ve accomplished together has been absolutely remarkable and will be celebrated for generations. This has been an incredible, storybook run.”
Johnson, who is 43, wants to continue racing for another “10 to 15 years” but admits, “it might not be in Cup for that long.” Short-term, he wants to return to winning after experiencing his first winless season in 2018.
“It hasn’t been a short-term decision or something that just happened in the recent time. It’s been an ongoing conversation that we’ve all had,” Johnson said. “Over the years, we’ve certainly had our heated moments, but the commitment we’ve had to one another, our relationship and the success of the team; we’ve invested a lot in that and put a lot of time in it. The decision to split up, it took a long time to make that decision as well. It’s not something that was like ‘OK, yeah that’s what we’re going to do.’ We put a lot of thought into it, worked on it and I think that we have a really strong plan moving forward.”
Johnson acknowledged the success he and Knaus enjoyed.
“We’re fierce competitors, we both want to win races, we both want to win championships and we acknowledge the fact that we’ve had a hell of a run,” he said. “It’s been a long, amazing run of 17 years. Sometimes, change brings new opportunity. Change brings excitement, a new breath of fresh air, a spark. Whatever it might be, that opportunity is now here for us.”
Knaus shared that sentiment.
“It’s all opportunity at the right time,” Knaus said. “I signed with Hendrick Motorsports. My contract has always said with Hendrick Motorsports. It hasn’t necessarily said for the No. 48 team. I love Rick. I love this company. I’ve been here, I was telling some of the guys in the shop, this is like 25 years for me with this company. I was here well before the No. 48 was ever even thought of.
“To sign a contract with Hendrick Motorsports in 2017 was an honor for me. Obviously, I love racing, I love this community and I love that it is what I do. Just the opportunity and the right time. Everything has got to be about timing and Rick’s pretty good about putting these timing pieces together. It’s right.”