The duo have won over 80 Cup races and seven championships together since the 2002 season in one of the most successful driver/crew chief pairings in NASCAR history.
But they both agreed that the timing was right.
“It hasn’t been a short-term decision or something that just happened in the recent time,” explained Johnson. “It’s been an ongoing conversation that we’ve all had. The timing, just the way that it worked out, this is the week that it’s coming out to the public and we’re announcing it. 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.”
Knaus echoed those sentiments, saying, “It’s the right time with the company with what we’ve got going on. We made a huge fundamental shift last year with the way the way that we operate at Hendrick Motorsports; combining the two buildings and putting four teams under one roof essentially. There’s time for evolution that creates opportunity for a lot of people. Obviously, Kevin (Meendering), Darian (Grubb) and myself. We’ve got to do what we feel is best for the No. 48, we’ve got to do what we feel is best for the other parts of the company. It’s just the right time.”
A brotherly bond
Although they’ve gotten into it on more than one occasion, Knaus wanted to make it clear that their bond is that of ‘brothers’ and this was purely a business decision.
“It’s not like we’re trying to kill each other,” he said. “That’s not where this is. It’s an opportunity for growth for both of us. We’ve lasted longer than the average length of a marriage in the United States. We’ve worked really hard. In order to be committed in a team-oriented environment for that long, there’s a lot of deep digging that you have to get through. And we’ve done that and we’ve put forth the effort and it’s time right now to do something different.
“Jimmie and I, we love each other, we fight like brothers which has been perfectly documented. It’s perfectly fine, we’re okay with that. We’ve answered way harder questions than this before in the past. It’s just the right time for everybody.”
Johnson later described their relationship as “a level that’s like a brotherhood more than a working relationship.”
Knaus took it even further, saying, “You guys have to realize that he was one of the first people ever to see my child. I was one of the first to see Genevieve when she was just born. We have been together for a long time. I was at his wedding, he was at my wedding, we spend holidays together and that is going to continue and it’s going to continue to grow. He has got a lot of valuable life lessons for me to learn yet about children and marriage and all that kind of cool stuff. I’m going to continue to lean on him on a lot of different levels and I’m always going to be there for him.”
A dream realized
For Knaus, the end of his tenure atop the No. 48 pit box has a bright side to it as it a dream he’s held for 25 years will finally come to fruition — serving as the crew chief for the No. 24 team.
“I’m so geeked up by it.” he admitted. “I have goosebumps when I think about it. I told some guys here yesterday, 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. I’m excited, we had Dupont which is now Axalta on the No. 24 car back then. I’m going to the No. 24 car with Axalta, which was Dupont. Jeff was 21-years-old, William’s going to be 21-years-old next year. It’s a really neat thing. I’m stoked. I really am.”
William Byron is currently wrapping up his rookie season at the Cup level. He has yet to reach Victory Lane and has just three top-tens through the first 30 races, both both Johnson and Knaus assert that he has the talent to be a champion.
“I am really excited for William,” said Johnson. “We have chatted quite a bit about it and I feel that William is a lot like me. He likes to be coached along. I think there are some personalities that liked to be coached and others that don’t thrive or succeed in that environment. William is a lot like me in that he likes to be coached and with Chad’s wisdom and years and experience his intensity and desire to win, I think it could do a lot of good for him. I’m really excited for him.”
Needing a fresh start
Johnson is currently facing the longest winless streak of his career and was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs at the Charlotte Roval after colliding with Martin Truex Jr. in a last-corner effort to win the race.
After 17 years, the pair believed it was time for a fresh start and that it could benefit both of them to shake things up.
“We both are fierce competitors and want to win,” said Johnson. “The last two years, although we did win three races last year, the year ended, it was difficult. This year has been tough as you guys all know and have lived with us. 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.
“We’ve been highly committed to each other, this team and our relationship, but it’s just to the point where we feel like change is the next step and potentially the next step for our next level of greatness as individuals. It just feels like it’s time.”
The final decision
But no matter how either party felt, in the end, the final decision rested with the man at the helm. “I have to say ultimately, it’s Rick’s call.” It’s Hendrick Motorsports. We’ve had a lot of very open conversations and discussions but in the end, Rick is the one that makes the decisions,” concluded Johnson.
As for the path to that final call, there was certainly some back-and-forth with Knaus saying, “You have to argue internally a little bit to make sure that you’re buying into it but I think we all understood with what we’ve gone through over the years, the performance of the No. 48 right now that it’s time to go ahead and do something different.”
Johnson said being honest with each other and “manning up” was integral in those discussions. “It’s a lot of honesty and a lot of communicating with all three involved, including Rick obviously. It’s us having hard conversations and when the idea was brought up, looking at all the pieces of the puzzle that could potentially move and what that would mean. But honestly, it comes from manning up in a lot of ways. That is the process we had to go through. As you can imagine, it hasn’t been easy and it’s certainly not fun but through tough conversations, conversations I think we could see, we experienced some optimism and we could see a plan laid out that started to make sense.”
A new name atop the No. 48 pit box
The 43-year-old driver of the No. 48 machine will start his next chapter with Kevin Meendering calling the shots, who has served as a crew chief for JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series for the last three years. Johnson was directly involved in that decision and called it a “very logical step for us.”
He then went on when asked what makes him most excited to work with Meendering, saying, “His pedigree. I haven’t worked alongside of him yet, I have watched from across the hall in a sense when he was on the No. 88 car. But the amount of respect everybody here at Hendrick Motorsports has for him, from Chad to Alan Gustafson, you name the crew chief, even throughout the industry.”
His engineers background was a factor as well. “I’ve been receiving text messages from competitors saying ‘hey he’s a sharp guy and a great choice’. So, his reputation and the way people hold his work ethic and his value the way they look and think of him. Speaking with drivers that have worked with him, how much fun he likes to have, how easy going he is. There are a lot of traits and qualities there that I’m very excited about. It’s awesome to have a lead engineer graduate into that crew chief role with as technical as our sport is. Knowing his background and the years that he has been in our system to understand our simulation, to understand all of our departments, how all that works, I have a lot of excitement around that as well.”
Going out together
Although there were discussions about making the change prior to the end of the season, the team opted to let the year finish out before the trigger was pulled.
“Jimmie and I talked about it one day, but really man I want to stay with the No. 48 and ride this thing out for the rest of the year,” said Knaus. “I think we are to the point… I think we are at the point that we can still go out there and win races. The team is just starting to really get rolling. If you look at (Las) Vegas, man we were fast we could have won Las Vegas. I know the stats don’t show it and all that kind of stuff, but Richmond we could have potentially won Richmond. We could have won the Roval.”
Earlier this year, Johnson said that he hoped to end his career as it began — with Knaus. But of course, things have changed. He now says it was a very difficult decision to split, but this is a ‘performance-based world’ and something had to change. “We have all had to make tough decisions in life. Making the decision is the hardest part and it certainly took us all time to make this decision ….. we live in a performance-based world and ultimately that is what we will be judged by. But, I have never let that fear steer me. There have been other things internally that steer me and I see a great opportunity here.
“I look back at 17 years, 7 championships, 83 wins so far, which we plan to change that with the remaining races we have left. I have a lot of pride. Again, it wasn’t an easy decision. 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.”
Despite the doubts, there is also a certain excitement in change and the prospect of new opportunities, which may lead the both of them to even more success before their careers are done.”
“We have had a hell of a run,” continued Johnson. “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. Where can that help us both grow? So, 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. I really have in this moment.”