By Toby Christie, NASCAR Editor
HOMESTEAD, Fla. — All is right in the world of Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus. The dynamic driver and crew chief duo are hitting on all cylinders heading into the season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
At stake? A record-tying seventh championship for Johnson, but 11 years ago this weekend, the team of Johnson and Knaus was nearly split up. Hendrick discussed his thought process as the competitive Johnson and Knaus started butting heads back in 2005.
“You know, every — I think it’s the toughest question when you have a relationship,” Hendrick explained. “It can be in a dealership, it can be in a race team, when you have two guys that have been so good and you try to decide is it time?”
The fact that Johnson and Knaus were nearly separated before winning their first championship in 2006, is not a new development. However, Rick Hendrick dropped a bombshell Friday during his media availability. Turns out the summer lull that Johnson and Knaus suffered through this season (two top-10 finishes during a 13-race stretch) actually had the legendary car owner mulling a shuffling of his crew chiefs within the organization.
“This year we started off really well, and then we hit a lull in the summer, and it was — we asked ourselves then, is this time? Do we need to make a change?”
Hendrick, always known as a great motivator, Met with the group and in the end he decided to stick with his potent driver/crew chief combination. Before long the two had found an advantage just in time for the Chase.
“But when you see things that are so close. I think that’s when they work harder, and we really just sit down and work hard together and try to identify weaknesses, and I think they have both made a commitment, they want to retire together,” said Hendrick. “They want to finish their careers together.”
Hendrick continued by saying, “So when there’s problems, everybody kind of locks arms. This year the whole organization did about the summer and the speed picked up for all the cars. But it was a situation — I think their relationship right now, even I think this summer was the biggest test we’ve had when we just weren’t running after winning a couple of races and struggling. But they did not lose focus, and it wasn’t one of those situations where, yeah we talked it out, but it was not a time when we were going to say let’s just try something different.”
Had Hendrick actually pulled the trigger on a crew chief swap, would Johnson be racing for a historic seventh championship right now? You can’t predict that for sure, but one would imagine his chances would have been much slimmer without Knaus on the box.