By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
It’s a dream come true for 37-year-old Kevin Meendering, who will become Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief beginning in 2019 after spending the last three seasons calling shots at JR Motorsports for Elliott Sadler in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
Meendering will be Johnson’s second ever full-time crew chief after having Chad Knaus for 17 seasons, and during Thursday’s press conference, he spoke about this opportunity of working with the seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion.
“Oh, it’s great. I’m excited for this opportunity for sure,” Meendering said. “I mean I couldn’t think of a better situation to be in than to work with Jimmie, a seven-time champion, it’s a dream come true.”
Meendering said the combination of Johnson’s leadership and the short amount of time he’s worked with him was a natural fit to his personality.
“He is a natural leader. I think everybody looks up to him,” said Meendering. “I think just his personality, my personality, he is so easy to work with. He really is just one of the guys when you are talking to him. I think he’s just very easy to talk to. Our communication just this short time of us working together, talking, I don’t know he’s just so down to earth and so level-headed it’s just really easy to communicate with him.”
The hard working and driven Meendering has previously worked at Hendrick Motorsports for 16 years dating back to an internship in the chassis department when he was in high school. Since then, he worked in the engineering department with the sport’s biggest figures of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Jeff Gordon.
In 2008, Meendering was named assistant engineer for Gordon’s No. 24 team before becoming lead engineer for Dale Jr.’s No. 88 team, and witnessed the intense chemistry Johnson and Knaus had as his team shared a shop with the No. 48 squad.
“I have worked alongside Jimmie and Chad for a number of years when I was with the No. 88,” Meendering said. “We were in the same building and we all know they have had their times of disagreements and stuff. I mean, they have had a lot of success, they have been together a long time and I think over the last year and a half… they are both very competitive people, they want to win and when they are not seeing the results they want I think they both look at this change as an opportunity to make the organization better and themselves better.”
Johnson said he was involved in the decision of bringing Meendering into the elite caliber team, and has seen first hand what he’s brought to the table at Hendrick Motorsports.
“Yeah, absolutely involved in the decision process on that,” Johnson said. “It’s a very logical step for us when we look at our relationship with JR Motorsports. Greg Ives (crew chief for Alex Bowman) left here, went there, came back, Kevin is doing the same thing. Kevin has a long history here at Hendrick Motorsports. Started in the fab shop. I worked next to him in the same shop as he was the lead engineering on the No. 88 car for so many years. We have a system in place and we have been able to use it a couple of times. There are some other examples too.”
Since the announcement, Johnson has received text messages of how great of an asset Meendering is as he’s known for his strong work ethic and gained a positive reputation among his peers in the garage, and said what impresses about his style despite not working alongside is his pedigree.
“I have watched from across the hall in a sense when he was on the No. 88 car. But the amount of respect everybody here at Hendrick Motorsports has for him, from Chad to Alan Gustafson, you name the crew chief, even throughout the industry,” Johnson said. “I’ve been receiving text messages from competitors saying ‘hey he’s a sharp guy and a great choice’. So, his reputation and the way people hold his work ethic and his value the way they look and think of him.
“Speaking with drivers that have worked with him, how much fun he likes to have, how easy going he is. There are a lot of traits and qualities there that I’m very excited about. It’s awesome to have a lead engineer graduate into that crew chief role with as technical as our sport is. Knowing his background and the years that he has been in our system to understand our simulation, to understand all of our departments, how all that works, I have a lot of excitement around that as well.”
All along, it was Meendering’s intent of becoming a NASCAR crew chief someday, and beginning in 2016, he got the opportunity to work with Sadler. In 94 starts, they’ve won three times (all in 2016), 38 top-fives, 75 top-10s, and scoring the 2017 regular season championship.
“Yeah, absolutely,” Meendering said. “When I started here in high school at 16 years old this was my goal. I’ve kind of worked my way up through the system. I went over to JR Motorsports and yeah, my intention all along were to get back here and be a crew chief.”
Although he’ll be a rookie crew chief in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series next season, Meendering said it won’t be a rebuilding season. Instead, he simply wants to win, and is confident about Johnson’s role that’ll create a fitting transition and produce winning results.
“I by no means feel like 2019 is going to be a rebuilding year for the No. 48. We have full intentions to come out swinging and competing for wins. Obviously, yes, it’s a high-pressure situation, but I feel like with the preparation and resources we have here, that is a big help for reducing that. You just have so many people surrounding you that you don’t feel like it’s all on you. And then, I feel like Jimmie does a great job of, I don’t want to say carrying the team, but he steps up big time in those situations. I think it’s a good fit for me.”
Before helping Johnson score a NASCAR record eighth championship, his eyes is set on making the right calls for Sadler that’ll get him that elusive Xfinity Series title as its his final season in the sport.
“That is 100 percent of my focus the rest of the year is on that No. 1 team trying to win that championship for Elliott,” said Meendering. “I mean there is nothing more that we would want to do than send him out on top. We have been so close the last two years and we want to get back there and be the champions. That is 100 percent my focus. Once that is done I will get to work over here.”
Sadler is currently tied with Cole Custer in fourth, 33 points behind points leader Christopher Bell heading into the Round of 8 opener at Kansas Speedway for the Kansas Lottery 300 Oct. 20.