Long: Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus end mirrors their beginning in subtleness

Dustin Long
NBC Sports

CONCORD, N.C. — Their beginning can be found on page 2C of the Dec. 11, 2001 edition of The Charlotte Observer.

Below a note that Ryan Newman would use the No. 12 for his rookie Winston Cup season and an item about Mark Martin’s new car chief at Roush Racing, was a small headline:

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Knaus goes back to Hendrick.

The three-paragraph item stated that Chad Knaus would return to Hendrick Motorsports to be rookie Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief for the 2002 season.

Nearly 17 years — and seven championships — later, the announcement of the duo’s pending departure shocked NASCAR in the same understated way.

Even though such news would merit a formal press conference streamed online, this was a casual session. Reporters sat on a couch or comfy chairs. Johnson and Knaus walked in carrying drinks in paper coffee cups.

They sat beside each other inside a building on the Hendrick Motorsports campus that didn’t exist when they began working together and discussed why a partnership that produced a record-tying number of titles and 81 wins (Johnson won twice while Knaus was suspended by NASCAR in 2006) would not continue after this year.

The end did not come because of one thing or another in particular but over time. Yes, a 53-race winless streak contributed to it, a sign that a partnership that had been feared in the garage was beatable. While they had pondered separating in the past, now it made sense.

“It wasn’t an easy decision,” Johnson said. “It took time to make it and you go through the thoughts of seeing it end. Could we have finished together? Of course, we have batted around all the questions that you are asking, but at some point, you have to go with your gut and it just feels right.”

Knaus preferred to look back at what they’ve accomplished.

“Let’s be frank, whoever thought that this would have gone 17 years? My point is this, instead of reflecting on what is the unknown, reflect a little bit on what we accomplished,” he said. “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. You can try to twist it all you want and do that stuff, but that is not what it is about. There are great opportunities for both of us.”

Their responses reveal who they are. Johnson, the California native with the heavy right foot and thoughtful, free-thinking ways and Knaus the no-nonsense Midwesterner.

When they started, they were the new kids who had been given access to car owner Rick Hendrick’s castle. Their debut season together came after Jeff Gordon had won his fourth title in 2001.

With a champion to lean on and more toys — resources — than the North Pole, Knaus played mad scientist and Johnson was Speed Racer. They won a pole in their first start. They won a race in their 10th start together. Then they won three races later.

While they fought — as brothers, as they liked to say — success kept them together. The longer they lasted, the more it seemed as if they would stay together until Johnson quit driving.

But the struggles on the track accelerated the thinking. While this team has shown more speed recently and Knaus remains confident that they can win this season, it became time for change.

“We have had a hell of a run,” Johnson said. “And a new spark probably wouldn’t hurt us. There is something to that and something new that we can both participate in. And then still at the same time be there for one another on a level that I don’t think has ever existed when a driver/crew chief do split. These splits usually are pretty tough. And in our situation, it’s not that. So, I have an ally and he has an ally. 

“Once you make the decision, and you start putting one foot in front of the other, I often find a lot of excitement in those moments and I have in this.”

Now that we know they will be apart, the question becomes how much longer will they be in their current roles?

Johnson’s contract is through 2020. The 43-year-old would like to drive another decade or more but admits those all won’t be in Cup.

Knaus’ contract also goes through 2020. How much longer will the 47-year-old father of a newborn want to be on the road every weekend?

“As of right now, the goal is going to be for me personally is go build the No. 24 team to be the best team that I am possibly capable of,” Knaus said. “And we go and we win.”

Then Knaus added: “I doubt very highly that William and I will be together for 17 years.”

He laughed.

Jeff Andrews, vice president of competition at Hendrick Motorsports, said that Knaus understands the challenges ahead.

“I know that Chad wouldn’t commit to do it if he had short-term plans about it,” Andrews said. “He knows that it’s going to take some level of commitment. That commitment is going to be possibly years to get the success out of it that he expects and we expect out of it.”

Until then, there are six races left for Knaus and Johnson to work together, six more chances to win another race, six more Sundays of us vs. them and then this chapter ends.

And a new era begins.

Johnson will be paired with Kevin Meendering, who rose through the ranks at Hendrick and has served as Elliott Sadler’s crew chief the past three seasons at JR Motorsports. Knaus will be teamed with 20-year-old wunderkid William Byron, who is a part of the organization’s future, just as Johnson was when he began.

Off the track, a new era also begins for Johnson and Knaus.

“I talked to Gordon about it and he swears that he and Ray (Evernham) are better friends now than what they were when they were winning championships and winning races,” Knaus said, “and I feel like we will be the same way.”

With that, Johnson and Knaus got up and walked along a quiet hallway to their next assignment. Work remained.

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