Both Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus will vie for their eighth title in NASCAR’s premier series in 2019.
But for the first time, they’ll look to do it apart from each other.
“I’ve never been in this position; I know that much,” Johnson said, on having a new crew chief for the first time in 17 years. “There is a lot of ‘new’ to it, there’s no way around that.”
Even with separate team goals for 2019 – Johnson with new crew chief Kevin Meendering and Knaus with No. 24 driver William Byron — both men emphasized their lasting brotherhood that extends beyond the race track. Would it be bittersweet to watch one win a championship without the other? Yes, of course, Knaus said.
With nearly two decades of collaboration between the two, their bond, however, goes beyond wins and titles.
“I would have loved to have done that with Jimmie,” Knaus said on winning an eighth championship, while at the Hendrick Motorsports’ campus Tuesday. “That is going to be painful in one respect, but I will be proud as heck of the guy. That is a huge accomplishment. I really hope he does get it. I really do.
“I say that saying I hope he gets it if (Byron and I) don’t, right?” he clarified. “My goal is for us to be battling in the (Championship) 4 at Homestead this year and racing tooth and nail for it coming across the start/finish line on fire, upside down, all that stuff just like you want to see it, that is the goal. …
“Look, everybody is like ‘Man are you going to get the first win or is Jimmie going to get the first win?’ … Who cares as long as we are both going out there, we are having a good time, we are racing and we are being successful. I’m not worried who gets the next one. I’m worried about remembering what it is we accomplished, what we did for (17) years, I think that is the most important element in this whole dynamic.”
It’s been an offseason of many changes for Hendrick Motorsports. Knaus takes his veteran knowledge to Byron, who just completed his rookie season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Atop the No. 48 pit box for Johnson will be Meendering, who has a proven track record with retired driver Elliott Sadler in the Xfinity Series and his previous years at Hendrick before moving to JR Motorsports.
“A few cold beers help,” Johnson said on the getting-to-know-you process with Meendering. “We’ve done that a couple of times. And, we’ve had some great, team-kind of hangouts, as well. …We’ve stayed in communication multiple times during the week and the progress of cars and builds and ideas and the hiring of some new people; so we’re off to a great start. And thankfully, I have some history with Kevin, and worked closely with him when he was the lead engineer on the No. 88 car.”
Despite the prestige that the No. 48 label carries, Meendering doesn’t seem fazed by the pressure from his new position. After serving as crew chief of the No. 1 JR Motorsports Chevrolet for three years, he’s wanted to come back to Hendrick Motorsports.
“There’s definitely pressure when you’re at this level competing,” he said. “It’s what I live for. I’ve always enjoyed that side of it. It definitely helps having all the resources we have here at Hendrick, all the smart people that have your back, give you ideas. So, you don’t feel like you’re going in alone.”
For Johnson, the crew chief change marks a shift in his role with the No. 48 team. He’ll keep the core group of crew members in 2019, but with Knaus’ departure, the group’s culture shaping has shifted more to him.
“In the end, Chad has a strong personality,” Johnson said. “And that has led the team, you know, everybody’s going to be clean-shaven, dressed right, shirts tucked in … The leadership role that he had carried into many facets. Kevin is much more laid-back … Of course, guys need to look acceptable and look fine on pit road but there are just other layers that are now open for me to join in and help take leadership on …
“I keep telling my guys the ‘locker room’,” he said. “I want to create a locker room that’s never been seen before in our sport. And the unity among our 15 road crew guys that just stands out on pit road that people see and know, ‘There’s the 48.’ So, that’s kind of my new role or where I’m expanding in my role.”
Knaus’ role shifts a bit, too; he’ll go from directing a veteran driver to young driver trying to soak up knowledge about his still-new series. Byron was only four years when Knaus first started as Johnson’s crew chief in 2002.
“Look, William and I said this; he’s 21 and I’m 47,” Knaus said. “So, we’re not going to be best friends. It’s not going to be the same relationship that Jimmie and I have. It can’t be, it’s inevitable, there’s too much of a gap. But we have a great relationship, it’s been a lot of fun. He’s very receptive to getting together, he’s very receptive to policies, he’s very receptive to what his expectations are from a team standpoint. He offers up what his expectations are … We text a lot; he’s been here probably six to eight times in the offseason, which is pretty amazing.
“I’ve really enjoyed it so far, I really have. It’s only going to get better and grow more, we just haven’t had an opportunity yet.”
Byron compared his new leader to his former Gander Outdoors Truck Series crew chief Rudy Fugle, who helped him win seven races his first season at the Truck level.
“I think it is a great learning opportunity for me,” Byron said, “His experience level is really high, but he’s not set in (his) ways. That is what I have noticed about him; he’s open to do new things. I feel like that is important as a crew chief and a team member.”
When the green flag waves at Daytona in February, it will be strange to not see Knaus and Johnson together. Knaus joked he’d probably walk into the wrong transporter or call William “Jimmie” at some point. It will be interesting, he said, but exciting.
Ultimately, it’s a dream he’s always had, since he was a part of the Rainbow Warriors pit crew with Jeff Gordon.
“You guys don’t understand my passion for the 24 team; it just goes so deep,” Knaus said. “It’s in my blood. Even when we were winning championships for the 48, I’m still paying attention to what the 24 was doing. So, to be back on the 24 car is really a dream come true. When I came to Hendrick Motorsports, my goal was to be crew chief on the 24 car.”
When Knaus and Byron break through for their first win together, Johnson said he’ll be there. Whether or not they’re paired together on track, they remain friends.
“He’s a brother,” Johnson said. “I have the utmost respect for him … I can’t wait for him to win. I’ll be the first guy in Victory Lane. …
“He’s going to win plenty, we’re going to win plenty and people will say, ‘Well damn, they’re both pretty good.’”