By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
What fans expected to be a career-long partnership will no longer be as the legendary duo of seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus will split at the end of the season after 17 seasons together.
Hendrick Motorsports announced Wednesday that changes were made in both the No. 48 and No. 24 teams for the 2019 season. Knaus will now make the calls for William Byron, while current Xfinity Series crew chief Kevin Meendering has been promoted to become Johnson’s crew chief.
Car owner Rick Hendrick said that he and the once inseparable duo that’s scored 81 victories, 345 top-10s in 598 starts (57.6%), and seven titles felt it was time to make key changes as Johnson is on the verge of his worst season to date with only two top-fives, 10 top-10 finishes, and an average finish of 17.2 heading into Sunday’s 1000Bulbs.com 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.
“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.”
Johnson said on Twitter that he can’t thank Knaus enough for what he has meant to him in his Hall of Fame bound career:
Chad and I have had unimaginable success together and I’m grateful for his friendship. I can’t thank him enough for his dedication to success and the drive to win. I’m looking forward to what the future holds for the entire @TeamHendrick organization. pic.twitter.com/zA8fse6XfI
— Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) October 10, 2018
At 47 years old, Knaus’ move to the No. 24 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 symbolizes a full circle moment as it was this team that kick started his career at Hendrick. From 1993-97, Knaus held various roles under the watchful eyes of Hall of Fame crew chief Ray Evernham, as in that span, he served as tire changer and oversaw the body department for Jeff Gordon before working for teams like Dale Earnhardt Inc., Tyler Jet Motorsports and Melling Racing from 1998-2001.
Hendrick added that Byron having Knaus as his crew chief will be a great match thanks to Knaus’ strong leadership etiquette and his self-appreciation of the Rainbow Warriors.
“You can’t quantify how much Chad’s leadership and championship experience will benefit William, who is a special talent,” Hendrick said. “The two of them are a great match, and I’m excited to see what they can do together. Chad has the Rainbow Warriors pedigree and truly appreciates the history of the No. 24. I’ve asked him to build another winner and given him the green light to put his stamp on the team and do it his way.”
Byron currently sits 22nd in points, with three top-10 finishes to his name after 30 starts, highlighted with a sixth-place run at Pocono in July.
Byron’s current crew chief Darian Grubb, who led Johnson to two victories in 2006 including the Daytona 500, will now become the technical director, where he’ll focus on Hendrick’s engineering and vehicle developmental resources.
“Darian has established himself as a respected leader in our company, and we’ve seen him thrive in an executive role,” Hendrick on Grubb’s assets to the team. “We’ve identified opportunities for improvement, and we know having him step up to technical director will help move us forward in those areas. He’s a champion who brings a wealth of knowledge that will continue to benefit us.”
As for Johnson’s new crew chief, Meendering currently calls the shots for Elliott Sadler, and has led the soon-to-be retiring veteran to three victories and two straight runner-up seasons in 94 starts. Sadler is currently fifth in points heading into the Round of 8 opener at Kansas Speedway Oct. 20, still looking for his first win since Kentucky Sept. 24, 2016.
For the 37-year-old, the announcement marks a return to NASCAR’s prestigious team as he helped in the engineering department for both Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Hendrick said he’s been impressed with Meendering, and felt he has the tools to lead Johnson for a historic eighth championship after seeing what he’s done with Sadler at JR Motorsports.
“Over the last couple of years, he’s been one of the most sought-after talents in the garage,” Hendrick said. “Kevin is an impressive person who came up in our organization and will hit the ground running on day one. We already know how well he works with our people and that he’s a respected, forward-thinking crew chief.
“Having worked with a veteran driver like Elliott Sadler for three years is extremely valuable experience. He’s the right fit for Jimmie at the right time. With an established No. 48 team behind them, I believe they will perform at a winning level next season and chase that eighth championship.”
Hendrick believes these decisions will boost the team back into winning form as they’re on the verge of its fewest wins since 1993 as Chase Elliott is the only driver out of the four-car stable to have won this season with two, including last Sunday’s Gander Outdoors 400 at Dover.
“We believe these decisions will provide us with a tremendous opportunity for success in the future,” Hendrick said. “As an organization, we are here to win races and compete for championships. Everything we do comes down to putting our people in the best possible positions to further that objective.
“Winning is what it’s all about.”
With six races remaining and out of the championship picture, Johnson and Knaus will not only eye on simply bringing the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet back in victory lane for the first time since Dover 53 races ago, but also go an astonishing 17-for-17 in seasons in which they’ve won at least one race.