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Johnson, Knaus Start To Adapt to New, Separate Era at Daytona

When it was announced last year that one of the greatest crew chief/driver combinations in NASCAR Cup Series history was breaking up, it was historic, to say the least.

It was NASCAR’s version of The Beatles breaking up. 

Four-time Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard Powered by Florida Georgia Line winner and seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, who won the Daytona 500 in 2006 and 2013, is experiencing life after Chad Knaus this season.

Several times in his career when Knaus was suspended by NASCAR for rules violations, Johnson had entered races with different crew chiefs, such as Darian Grubb when Johnson won the 2006 Daytona 500, but Knaus has always been in the man in charge of Johnson’s operation at Hendrick Motorsports.

Instead of working closely with Knaus, Johnson’s new crew chief is Kevin Meendering. He was previously Elliott Sadler’s crew chief in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. The 47-year-old Knaus has become crew chief for William Byron and the No. 24 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 team with its respective personnel.

In another key move at Hendrick Motorsports, Grubb becomes the team’s technical director.

The breakup of the Johnson/Knaus combination is historic. For 17 seasons, this duo worked together, and the accomplishments were impressive. Those included 81 victories and a record-tying seven NASCAR Cup championships. 

It was the second-most successful driver/crew chief combination in NASCAR history. The winningest driver crew chief duo is 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.

Knaus was part of that Gordon/Evernham team when he originally joined Hendrick Motorsports 25 years ago. From 1993 to 1998, Knaus worked under Evernham on body development and was a tire changer on the famed “Rainbow Warriors” pit crew.

A new combination has already had its impact at Daytona. Johnson has been the central focus of two incidents involving two-time Brickyard 400 winner and 2015 Cup champion Kyle Busch. 

The first was in last Sunday’s Advance Auto Parts Clash when Johnson was racing hard down the backstretch with rain closing in. Johnson’s Chevrolet was on the low line and drifted up the track, making contact with Paul Menard’s Ford and triggering a multi-car crash that involved Busch.

In Thursday night’s first Gander RV Duel at Daytona qualifying races, the same thing happened again, but Busch was able to remain in the race with a damaged Toyota.

After Thursday night’s incident, Busch was critical of Johnson’s driving.

“I was in the middle of three-wide and got hit in the right rear,” Busch said. “The cars are fine. He ran into me, Dude. Flat out. Watch the television. I don’t know why, you have to open your eyeballs and see where the (bleep) you are going, that’s all I’ve got to say.

“The car was destroyed. It vibrated the rest of the way and was crap after that.”

Busch revealed Friday that Johnson texted him with an apology for the incident, but the incidents may have changed the perception of Johnson’s squeaky-clean racing image.

Has a new crew chief created a new, aggressive Johnson?

“I guess the statement is more for everybody else,” Johnson said. “There's been such a reaction to me racing hard in the Clash. It happens at every plate track. It has since there's been plates on cars. We're going to have a lot more of it this year with this new rules package.

“In the Clash, if you watched that race objectively, I think you say it's a racing incident. Could I have left a couple inches? Sure. Could Paul have not come down? Sure. We're racing, what is to be expected of us. We're racing. That's what we're out there to do.

“I don't want to turn a blind eye to what has happened. I think there's always lessons to learn in anything.”

Because of the current rules package at Daytona, as this is the last race for the restrictor-plate package before NASCAR’s new rules package is used beginning next week at Atlanta, drivers have to be daring in order to make a pass.

“I feel like you have to race,” Johnson said. “That's all I was doing. I know where my intent was. I know what I was trying to do in the car. Again, I try to be open-minded and aware of things that happen and try to learn from them, good and bad.”

Last year, team owner Rick Hendrick believed the time was right to break up Johnson and Knaus for a variety of reasons. It’s also a great time for Knaus to start to develop Byron as he begins his second season in the NASCAR Cup Series.

“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. 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, 43, believes he has more wins left in his career. But in NASCAR, 43 has become the new 53 in regards to racing careers.

Back in the days when racers such as Petty, Harry Gant and others raced into their 50s, the generation of race drivers that included Gordon, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were able to earn so much more money than their predecessors, they didn’t need to take the risk to race as middle-aged men. Combine that with the overwhelming demands of a grueling schedule, and their competitive fire burned out sooner than previous generation of racers.

Plus, lucrative post-driving opportunities awaited Gordon, Stewart and Earnhardt, so retirement in their early 40s was appealing.

Johnson 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 the first winless season of his career in 2018.

To do that, however, it will be with a different crew chief other than Knaus.

“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. Just getting through this week, get it behind us and get to work on what’s next for both of us and the teams.

“We both are fierce competitors and want to win. The last two years, although we did win three races in 2017, the year ended, it was difficult. In 2018, it has been tough as you guys all know. 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. It’s been a long, amazing run of seventeen 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.”

Simply put, it was the right time to move on and break up the combination.

“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.”

At one time, the two were so successful, they had “milk and cookie meetings.” But over the years, the relationship began to go stale and the milk went sour.

“That was a starting point of us both having a lot of personal growth,” Johnson said. “Over the years, I guess there haven’t been that many documented moments, but I promise you; the reason we lasted 17 years together is because of, it started with the milk and cookies meeting but many of the other discussions, meetings, sessions over the years, whatever it is, we’re communicating on a deep level. A level that’s like a brotherhood more than a working relationship.”

The man in charge of Johnson’s car is Meendering, who spent 16 years at Hendrick Motorsports beginning with a high-school internship in the chassis department. In 2008, he was named assistant engineer for the No. 24 team with Gordon and in 2011 became lead engineer for the No. 88 team of Dale Earnhardt Jr. He holds a mechanical engineering degree from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Knaus will take his experience and expertise and try to forge young Byron into a winner.

“You have no idea, I’m so geeked up by it,” Knaus said. “I have goosebumps when I think about it. I told some guys on 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.”

The beginning of one opportunity has come at the end of an era. And both Johnson and Knaus are fine with that.

“Let’s be frank, whoever thought that this would have gone 17 years?” Knaus asked. “My point is this, instead of reflecting on what is the unknown, reflect a little bit on what we accomplished. And that is what I have really focused on. We have done amazing things over the course of our career. It should not have stemmed the span that it did. That is very, very comforting to me, personally.

“There are great opportunities for both of us. Jimmie has still got years left in him to drive, and I have still got a couple of years left in me to be a crew chief. We are going to go and do that. It wasn’t as tumultuous as what you may think.

“You can’t erase what we’ve done. It’s not over. It’s going to live forever.”

In Sunday’s Daytona 500, a new chapter begins for both Johnson and Knaus, who are working with someone different for the first time since Johnson’s rookie season.

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