By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
“I have to say ultimately, it’s Rick’s call. It’s Hendrick Motorsports. We’ve had a lot of very open conversations and discussions but in the end, Rick is the one that makes the decisions,” Jimmie Johnson said on who made the call to split up a 17-year partnership with crew chief Chad Knaus.
A day removed from the bombshell news of the NASCAR season took place, both Johnson and Knaus spoke for the first time about the announcement Thursday.
It’s no secret the legendary duo has had their heated moments over the years, especially this season where an eighth championship is out of the question, they are winless for 53 races, and only have a measly two top-five finishes after 30 of 36 races.
On the contrary of what people believed, both said the Roval race at Charlotte, where Johnson came close of winning before losing control and collected race leader Martin Truex, Jr. in the final chicane, that eliminated him from advancing into the Round of 12, had nothing to do with the decision. Knaus noted the decision was already made by that point.
While the lows have overshadowed an otherwise revolutionary chemistry, their impact together will never be forgotten, attested by their 81 victories and seven Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championships.
Johnson said the plan of Hendrick splitting them up after the 2018 season was a long progress, requiring multiple talks before the call was made to pair Knaus with William Byron next season.
“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. The timing, just the way that it worked out, this is the week that it’s coming out to the public and we’re announcing it,” 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. Just getting through this week, get it behind us and get to work on what’s next for both of us and the teams.”
Johnson added the entire discussion between himself, Knaus and Hendrick remained honest, and looked at different options before Rick made the final decision.
“It’s a lot of honesty and a lot of communicating with all three involved, including Rick obviously,” Johnson said. “It’s us having hard conversations and when the idea was brought up, looking at all the pieces of the puzzle that could potentially move and what that would mean. But honestly, it comes from manning up in a lot of ways. That is the process we had to go through.
“As you can imagine, it hasn’t been easy and it’s certainly not fun but through tough conversations, conversations I think we could see, we experienced some optimism and we could see a plan laid out that started to make sense.”
Knaus stated that it was time to go their separate ways, noting the drastic changes Hendrick Motorsports has made over the past season with the merging of having all four cars under one building instead of two teams per building as it was in previous seasons.
“It’s the right time with the company with what we’ve got going on,” Knaus said. “We made a huge fundamental shift last year with the way the way that we operate at Hendrick Motorsports; combining the two buildings and putting four teams under one roof essentially.
“There’s time for evolution that creates opportunity for a lot of people. Obviously, Kevin (Meendering), Darian (Grubb) and myself. We’ve got to do what we feel is best for the No. 48, we’ve got to do what we feel is best for the other parts of the company. It’s just the right time.”
Despite signing through 2020, both will now seek to become eight-time champions separately. For Johnson, to become the most successful NASCAR champion of all-time, while Knaus will look to tie Dale Inman with most titles by a crew chief.
With that in mind, Knaus said the opportunity of moving on from Johnson will allow personal growth. More importantly, he felt it’s the right time to call the shots for Byron, who’s on the verge of winning Rookie of the Year honors, and an opportune moment for Johnson’s 2019 crew chief Kevin Meendering, who’s looking to lead Elliott Sadler to that elusive Xfinity Series championship.
“It’s not like we’re trying to kill each other. That’s not where this is. It’s an opportunity for growth for both of us,” Knaus said. “We’ve lasted longer than the average length of a marriage in the United States. We’ve worked really hard.
“In order to be committed in a team-oriented environment for that long, there’s a lot of deep digging that you have to get through. And we’ve done that and we’ve put forth the effort and it’s time right now to do something different. It really is it’s the right time for the company.
“We have a young driver in William Byron. We’ve got growth within the company we’ve got a fairly young crew chief in Kevin that needs an opportunity. There’s a lot of things that are falling at the right place right now. Jimmie and I, we love each other, we fight like brothers which has been perfectly documented. It’s perfectly fine, we’re okay with that. We’ve answered way harder questions than this before in the past. It’s just the right time for everybody.”
Knaus joining the No. 24 team is nothing new. In fact, it’s a Homecoming moment for the 47-year-old as it was the first Hendrick team he worked for from 1993-1997, which had him stoked leading the team.
“You have no idea. I’m so geeked up by it. I have goosebumps when I think about it,” Knaus said. “I told some guys here yesterday, the No. 24 guys, I started here in 1993 and in 1993 when I walked in the door and I started to work in that little shop up on the hill when we had about 14 full-time employees, I was about the 75th teammate here because I wanted to be crew chief on the No. 24 car.
“It’s only taken me 25 years and 17 years with this guy to get the opportunity to be able to do that. I’m really proud of that. I’m excited, we had Dupont which is now Axalta on the No. 24 car back then. I’m going to the No. 24 car with Axalta, which was Dupont. Jeff was 21-years-old, William’s going to be 21-years-old next year. It’s a really neat thing. I’m stoked. I really am. I’m sad that this chapter is… It’s not over. I mean you can’t, what people think, ‘the era’s over,’ you can’t erase what we’ve done. It’s not over. It’s going to live forever.”
Johnson said he was heavily involved of having Meendering making the shots as he’s seen his progress dating back to the days when the No. 48 and No. 88 teams shared a shop. In 2011, Meendering became the lead engineer for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. before becoming a crew chief for Sadler in 2016.
“Yeah, absolutely involved in the decision process on that. It’s a very logical step for us when we look at our relationship with JR Motorsports,” Johnson said. “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.”
Johnson added that Meendering has garnered a positive reputation at Hendrick Motorsports, including Knaus and Chase Elliott’s crew chief Alan Gustafson, and excited about what he’ll bring to the No. 48 team.
“His pedigree. I haven’t worked alongside of him yet, I have watched from across the hall in a sense when he was on the No. 88 car,” Johnson said. “But the amount of respect everybody here at Hendrick Motorsports has for him, from Chad to Alan, you name the crew chief, even throughout the industry.
“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.”
With six races left in their journey, one goal remains before going their separate ways, going 17-for-17 in the win column, and that’s what Johnson is focused on heading into Sunday’s 1000Bulbs.com 500 at Talladega Superspeedway in Lincoln, Alabama, a track he’s won twice in Spring 2006 and 2011.
“Well the year is not over yet with Chad, so for starters there is that. We have a couple of opportunities left,” Johnson said. “I haven’t put a lot of thought into that specifically. I do feel that we have put a lot of time and energy into the 17 years that we have had and a fresh start would suit us both well.
“That excitement, energy and the commitment involved, the learning, the communication that takes place to start a new opportunity there is some magic in that. When new things start up there is always some extra energy and excitement around it. So, with that in mind I think comes opportunity for both cars and both teams.”
Going forward, Knaus hopes he can be around with Johnson as the pressure of delivering max results will fizzle out, and brought up how Jeff Gordon told him that his friendship with Ray Evernham exponentially grew after Everham left Hendrick Motorsports with seven races remaining of the 1999 season.
“You are 100 percent correct,” Knaus said. “Every time you leave out of battle you have an emotion a sense in you that you have to deplete before you are able to get back into that space. So, we have gone through that a lot. I talked to Gordon about it and he swears that he and Ray are better friends now than what they were when they were winning championships and winning races and I feel like we will be the same way.
“You guys have to realize that he was one of the first people ever to see my child. I was one of the first to see Genevieve when she was just born. We have been together for a long time. I was at his wedding, he was at my wedding, we spend holidays together and that is going to continue and it’s going to continue to grow. He has got a lot of valuable life lessons for me to learn yet about children and marriage and all that kind of cool stuff. I’m going to continue to lean on him on a lot of different levels and I’m always going to be there for him.”