CONCORD, N.C. – “It just feels like it’s time,” said Jimmie Johnson and “It’s the right time with the company,” chimed in Chad Knaus and one wonders if Johnson wasn’t mired in the longest losing streak of his career would we be having this conversation?
But he is and here we are, seated across from Johnson and Knaus inside the Axalta Customer Experience Center on the campus of Hendrick Motorsports.
Outside, Hurricane Michael, or what’s left of it, is still making a fuss. Indoors, Johnson and Knaus, one of the winningest driver/crew chief combinations in the 70-year history of NASCAR, are attempting to explain away Wednesday’s surprise announcement.
A day earlier, Hendrick Motorsports announced personnel changes for ’19 and jumping off the screen was the news that Johnson and Knaus, winners of 80-plus Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races and seven championships would not be paired together for an 18th consecutive season.
Instead, Knaus will be returning to the organization’s No. 24 team as crew chief for driver William Byron. It’s a homecoming of sorts as Knaus got his start at HMS working under Ray Evernham on the No. 24 with driver Jeff Gordon. He moved to the No. 48 in 2002 as crew chief when that team went fulltime.
Kevin Meendering, once the lead engineer on the No. 88 od Dale Earnhardt Jr. and more recently crew chief for Elliott Sadler and the No. 1 JR Motorsports Chevrolet in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, will become just the second full-time crew chief of the No. 48.
Darian Grubb, Byron’s crew chief this season, will take on the role of technical director, overseeing the company’s engineering and vehicle development programs.
A number of explanations for the breakup have been floated, but what it all boils down to is this: Johnson hasn’t won since last year and the No. 48 team has been underperforming for at least two seasons and he and Knaus expect to win a lot more often than that.
“We both are fierce competitors and want to win,” said Johnson, clad in jeans and a black polo shirt adorned with Hendrick Motorsports and Chevrolet logos.
“The last two years, although we did win three races last year, the year ended, it was difficult. This year has been tough.”
A 53-race winless streak will seem like that, particularly to a team that’s used to winning multiple races every year, qualifying for the playoffs and contending for titles when they weren’t winning them.
“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,” Johnson said. “It’s been a long, amazing run of 17 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.”
So it wasn’t because they didn’t get along and it wasn’t because Knaus is now a family man with other concerns and it wasn’t because Johnson will have a new sponsor next year and NASCAR will have a new rules package and it isn’t because it would be, you know, a clean break, a fresh start for all involved.
Knaus said a “fundamental shift” in 2017 created a lot of resets at HMS – what had been two separate buildings housing two teams each theoretically became four teams under a single roof and the resets and movement and machinery that went with that has created a lot of opportunities for others within the organization.
But still … if Johnson and Knaus and the rest of the 48 were winning?
“It’s not like we’re trying to kill each other,” Knaus 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. It really is it’s the right time for the company.”
The season isn’t over and six opportunities remain for Johnson and Knaus to get back on track.
Who knows? Maybe we haven’t seen the last of them just yet.
“I think we are at the point that we can still go out there and win races,” Knaus said. “The team is just starting to really get rolling.”