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Legendary Crew Chief Knaus Providing Guiding Light for Byron’s Growth as Driver

In October 2018, Hendrick Motorsports shocked the NASCAR world when it announced it was splitting the legendary pairing of crew chief Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson and transitioning Knaus to lead one of Hendrick’s assumed future stars in 2019, William Byron.

Together, Knaus and Johnson won seven NASCAR Cup Series championships, including five straight from 2006-10.

Chad and Jimmie will go down as one of the greatest combinations in sports history,” team owner Rick Hendrick said at the time. “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.”

Hendrick made the move looking to give Byron a spark after a tough rookie season in 2018, when he entered the NASCAR Cup Series as the reigning NASCAR Xfinity Series champion. Byron finished in the top 10 just four times with the same team that triumphed with Kasey Kahne in the 2017 Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400 Powered by Big Machine Records.

The thought was that maybe Byron, then just 20, needed a disciplined, well organized and very successful team leader by his side as he matures and grows into what many believe could be NASCAR’s next star driver. Who better to pair NASCAR’s next star with than arguably the best crew chief in the business?

The results were immediate.

Last season started with Byron winning his first career pole during qualifying for the Daytona 500. After that, the two experienced some expected growing pains as they learned each other and their differences – most notably an age disconnect as Knaus is 48, more than double Byron’s age of 22.

By the time the series returned to Daytona on July Fourth weekend, the pair started to click. Byron scored his career-best finish, a second in the Coke Zero Sugar 400. He added four more top-five finishes in the second half of 2019, including a fourth-place finish at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and ended the year with 13 top-10 finishes and 233 laps led.

For Knaus, this pairing is far different than the “make it or break it” pairing he and Johnson started with in 2002. Back then, he was trying to build his career. Now, he’s trying to mold another.

“To be working here with William, watching him mature, watching him just get the experience and everything that he's got going on, the confidence to go out there and race with those guys, it's been a pleasure, to be honest with you,” Knaus said. “With Jimmie, we were just digging and clawing and scratching for everything we could. This has been a lot of fun. It's been a very calculated path. Hopefully we can continue to go down this road.”

Byron and Knaus spent all year building their driver-crew chief relationship through a variety of ways. They record their in-race communication and listen to it during the week to learn what parts of their communication are productive.

They also test Byron’s skills in various different cars, often in sports cars, and Knaus has been known to ride shotgun with Byron to learn what he is experiencing inside the car in order to better understand how he can help the young driver.

Most recently, Knaus bought an iRacing “rig” to better familiarize himself with the NASCAR Cup Series tracks on the schedule. Plus, Byron is one of the nation’s best iRacing competitors and started his career in the racing simulation. For Knaus, it was important to understand where he is coming from.

“We've built something over the last year working with Chad,” Byron said. “He's allowed me to grow up a lot. I think he's held me accountable for a lot of things that are really good. I just feel comfortable walking into the shop. I think that took me really till this year, this offseason, to walk in and just feel like a race car driver and comfortable. That's a lot of credit to him.”

As Byron competes in his third NASCAR Cup Series season this year, having an experienced leader may be more important than ever with the season going on hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and now racing under a tightly condensed schedule that features no practice or qualifying.

The season started with a win in the preseason Bluegreen Vacations Duels qualifying race in Daytona and continued a top 10 at Phoenix in March. Since NASCAR’s return in May, he has finished in the top 15 four times in seven races, including two top-10 finishes in the last three races. Byron said the pairing has created confidence he needed.

“There's really no other relationship out there besides you and your guys and your crew chief,” Byron said. “I think that's where the confidence for me comes from. We just don't stop here. (The Duel win) is kind of a result that we can put up on the board now in the shop and say, ‘OK, now we actually have something to show for what we think we've been able to do lately.’”

As an established modern-day legend in the NASCAR garage, Knaus takes pride in helping build the career of an up-and-coming driver. But he also takes pride in the number he’s representing and his leadership role with it.

The move reunited him with the No. 24 team, which he was a member of in the 1990s as a part of Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham’s iconic “Rainbow Warriors” team.

“As a 20-year-old young man seeing that team grow, wanting to be crew chief of that car back then, to finally get the opportunity to work with William, all of our partners, be a part of the 24 car, it's really a dream come true,” Knaus said. “It's a lot of fun. I carry the 24 like a badge of honor, I really do. I think to be a part of this 24 team, the heritage it's had through the years with Ray Evernham, Brian Whitesell, Robbie Loomis, you talk to the people on the team, the sponsors we've had, obviously what Jeff was able to do with it, there's a lot of pride with that 2-4.”

As the team comes to Indianapolis on July Fourth weekend for the Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400 Powered by Big Machine Records (live on NBC), the pair might be one of the favorites in the field.

Byron kissed the bricks in 2017 after winning the NASCAR Xfinity Series race, and Knaus has been a part of five victories at the historic racetrack: four as Johnson’s crew chief in 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2012, and one as a part of Gordon’s historic win the in the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994.

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