Haley joins Sauter in championship round

FORT WORTH, Texas – Justin Haley join GMS Racing teammate Johnny Sauter in the championship round at Homestead, earning his berth when race leader Todd Gilliland ran out of fuel just a half-lap from the finish of Friday night’s JAG Metals 350 Camping World Truck Series race.

Gilliland, impressive in his starts this season in the No. 4 Toyota for Kyle Busch Motorsports, led laps 124-146 at Texas Motor Speedway. But when his truck stumbled, Haley was there to grab the lead, the win and a chance to battle for the championship in two weeks at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“It’s not like we’re lucky,” the 19-year-old Haley said, “we’re bringing fast trucks.”

He led four times for 33 laps Friday night, and it was his third win of the season so there’s more than just a little truth to what he said.

“To have both GMS Trucks that are running in the playoffs locked in … it’s a much bigger picture than just the (No.) 24 team,” Haley added. “There are over 100 employees at the shop that can really focus. This is our Homestead truck, we’re going to turn it around.”

Fellow GMS driver Johnny Sauter won last week’s race at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway to earn a shot at the championship.

Crew chief Kevin Bellicourt said his crew had put in just enough fuel during a final pit stop to give Haley a buffer should the race into overtime. Gilliland wasn’t as fortunate.

“We could go 50 laps (on full tank), right at it,” Bellicourt said. “We knew that so we were right at our window. I brought him in one lap earlier than I was originally planning because pretty much everyone had come down pit road. … We literally took just enough fuel to get two laps past the finish.”

Gilliland coasted across the finish line fourth after leading twice for 60 laps.

“I have no idea how we were on fuel,” Gilliland, 18, said afterward. “I thought we were good.

“I’m very disappointed but very proud at the same time. My team gave me a great truck and I wrecked it in qualifying. We were still able to come out here and contend for a win.”

Ben Rhodes finished second to Haley, while playoff contender Brett Moffitt was third.

Playoff drivers Matt Crafton, Noah Gragson, Sauter and Grant Enfinger finished ninth through 12th, respectively. Gragson holds the No. 4 cutoff spot with one race remaining, next weekend’s stop at ISM Raceway in Phoenix.

Enfinger trails Gragson by 18 while Crafton sits 23 back.

Johnson not waiting on 2019

FORT WORTH, Texas – Jimmie Johnson isn’t waiting for 2019 to begin working with his new crew chief. The seven-time champion and winner of 83 races took part in a Goodyear tire test Tuesday at Atlanta Motor Speedway in part to begin building the driver/crew chief relationship with Kevin Meendering.

“That was the icebreaker part,” Johnson said Friday from Texas Motor Speedway, site of Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race.

“Here’s a chance for us to go hang out for the day. Granted, we can’t work on the car, but we’ll be on the radio and we can talk and afterward we looked at the computers and discussed things and just tried to work on our dialog.”

Johnson said he even treated it as if changes could be made to the car, “talked about what I felt, where I thought it was coming from. Just to get that dialog started,” he said. “Because it’s honestly the most important part.”

Hendrick Motorsports officials announced Oct. 10 that the potent Johnson/Chad Knaus combination would be no more after the ’18 season. The driver and crew chief have been together since 2003, Johnson’s first full season in the series. The No. 48 team has set records, such as five consecutive championships from 2006-10, and set the standard by which all other teams have been measured.

But Johnson hasn’t won since June 4, 2017, a span of 56 races. His streak of winning seasons, currently at 16, is in jeopardy with three races remaining. He was a first-round casualty in this year’s Playoffs.

Knaus will replace Darian Grubb in ’19 as crew chief of the No. 24 entry with driver William Byron. Meendering is currently crew chief for Elliott Sadler in the Xfinity Series.

“I’ve been around Kevin a lot of years,” Johnson said. “Certainly (it was) odd having a different voice in my ears. Totally different. Of course, there’s a lot of excitement with something new and (a lot of) energy around that.

“We had a lot of fun with it and there wasn’t a lot of pressure – just kind of scratching the surface.”

Prior to joining JRM, Meendering spent 16 years at HMS. He served as assistant engineer for Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 team in 2011 before being named lead engineer for the No. 88 of Dale Earnhardt Jr. He’s in his third season at JRM.

Ross Chastain (Chip Ganassi Racing), Paul Menard (Wood Brothers Racing), Erik Jones (Joe Gibbs Racing) and Ryan Blaney (Team Penske) participated in the single-day confirmation test using the 2019 rules package.

Johnson, 43, took part in the Atlanta test to drive the wheel force car for Chevrolet. Not the move one might expect from a seven-time champion. Yet he said it’s the second time this year’s he’s driven the car and he’s offered to do it more often.

A wheel force car is basically a stock car equipped with all sorts of data-gathering gizmos that measure things such as vertical load, lateral load, camber and slip angles.

Before NASCAR outlawed testing, Johnson said his team was constantly at the track. Today, teams get two or three opportunities for track time outside of race weekends.

“I think it was probably ’08, ’09, we had our seven NASCAR tests and then we could go to other tracks and test, non-Cup venues,” he said. “We had 22 two-day test sessions in addition to our full racing schedule.

“Now to go to 1-2 organizational tests a year? My god.

“Where I really learn is hands-on, in the car, working with the team. I study video and I read notes and I go through all of that stuff that we do, but connecting it to your butt and your hands, that’s where we make our money, that’s the difference. And I only have a few ways to do that anymore, especially outside of a race weekend. So, I’m just taking any chance I can get.”

Greg Stucker, director of race tire sales for Goodyear, said Johnson’s participation was key not only because of his experience “but his skill set, too.”

“Obviously he has a good way of translating what’s going on with the race car, the tires, or any component to whoever would be looking for the information,” Stucker said. “He’s just got a good feel for the race car and he can relate that, he can communicate it well. I think that’s one reason why those guys have been so successful is because he’s been so good at doing that.

“And obviously just the experience; he’s been through a lot of different types of race tracks and different types of cars.”

Johnson said he’s encouraged his teammates – Byron, Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott – to spend time driving the wheel force vehicle. The information collected is crucial in working through the Chevrolet simulator.

“We go back to the simulator and it’s so tough because we’re very limited on data we can pull,” he said. “When we go to the simulator and have to confirm the tire modeling, it’s up to the driver’s memory and knowledge, how it felt, to confirm it. That’s what the entire simulation is built off of.

“I fundamentally have just felt like it’s something we need to be doing.”

Because the simulator is booked for both NASCAR and IndyCar teams, Johnson said his schedule hasn’t allowed him to take part in as many sessions as he would like and “close the loop.”

Officials want whoever drives the wheel force car to be in the simulator as soon as possible. “They don’t want you to be out of it for two weeks and then drive the simulator,” he said. “They want you to go straight away and drive the simulator while it’s fresh on your mind.”

A seven-time champion with 83 victories. And his foot still firmly on the gas pedal.

“It doesn’t hurt and I love to work,” Johnson said. “I do.

“Social media with all the nice and kind people that are on there like to say that I’m more interested in riding my bike but they don’t see what I put in to this.

“Anything I can to be better and help advance our team, I’m in. This is just one of those opportunities.”

Turning back the clock at Martinsville

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – This is exactly what made NASCAR.

Boil it all down and strip away the color and the money and the TV and everything else that is just so much window dressing today and THIS IS WHAT MADE NASCAR.

It’s why it became the fastest-growing, most popular sport in the 1990s and early 2000s.

It’s what made it immensely popular throughout the South long before that. Stick and ball sports reigned elsewhere. Below the Mason-Dixon it was four tires and the roar of an unrestricted engine.

It was an intense battle for the lead in the closing laps of a race. Emotions and sheetmetal rubbed raw from an afternoon spent wrestling a 3,400-pound car around the tight confines of a short track.

It was forcing the car to do things it shouldn’t do, willing it to do things it couldn’t do, but by God making it do them just the same.

It was contact and smoke and dented metal and donuts in the door and more smoke and the checkered flag.

It was a good guy and a bad guy and someone’s fuming and someone’s celebrating.

That’s a big part of what’s been missing from NASCAR.

It was there again on Sunday. On display. In all its forgotten glory.

Fittingly, it played out at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, the shortest of the short tracks on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule and the ONLY track that has been hosting NASCAR events since the inaugural 1949 season.

Joey Logano won Sunday’s First Data 500 because he moved Martin Truex Jr. out of the lead. On the last lap. In the last turn. With his front bumper. And with an opportunity to race for the championship on the line.

Those opportunities don’t present themselves every week, mind you.

The push came after several laps of side-by-side racing between the two. Truex had taken the lead on the white-flag lap, passing Logano cleanly on the inside as the two rolled out of the second turn and headed for the backstretch.

Critics howled. How dare he! Logano mugged him, knocked him out of the way!

Others came to Logano’s defense. Under those same circumstances, any driver would have done the same thing, they said. Particularly one of the eight needing a win to guarantee a spot in the Championship Four at Homestead-Miami Speedway next month.

Both groups are correct. Logano did knock him out of the way.

Just as many, many others have done in years past. Name a former champion, name a NASCAR Hall of Famer. Don’t make me do it because good Lord if you’ve followed NASCAR for any time at all you’ve seen it happen. Don’t be naïve. Those guys with seven championships? Yeah, you’re damn right, they did it. And the rest of them, too.

Doesn’t make it right or wrong. It just makes it what it is.

Races can be and have been won without “punting” the leader. Truex had every right to believe Logano would race him exactly as he had raced Logano.

It was the final lap. With a ticket to Homestead on the line. You can expect whatever you want but I’ll tell you right here and right now, I know how this is going to end more times than not.

There was a point earlier in the race when a driver complained about slower cars running side by side in front of him, making it impossible to pass.

And I thought rather than complain about slower cars, why not go up there and put the bumper to someone and move them out of the way? Is that so wrong?

That’s how races have been won and lost on short tracks for as long as there HAVE BEEN short tracks.

Is it “dirty” when a slower car holds you up in an effort to stay on the lead lap? No. It’s what any driver will try to do.

I’m not saying what Logano did was right or wrong. I’m simply saying it was a decision. No different from Truex.

Until then, a surprisingly quiet race, almost sanitary you might say, had played out before a good crowd.

But then things got interesting and I don’t care who you feel was right or wrong, you can’t say that it wasn’t a memorable finish and one that will be talked about for quite a while.

It’s the kind of thing that made NASCAR great. It’s what could make it great again.

Busch on pole at Martinsville

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Kyle Busch has been the guy to beat this year on short tracks and that won’t change when the field lines up Sunday for the First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway.

The driver of the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota will start on the pole but he has been considered a race favorite long before he beat 39 others for the top spot Saturday afternoon.

Busch, the 2015 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion, didn’t win here in March, but he finished second.

He then won at Bristol (Tenn.) and Richmond (Va.), went back to Richmond in the fall and won again. A 20th in the Night Race at Bristol has been the only hiccup this season.

All three of the tracks are less than one mile in length. Busch seems to thrive on them. Fifteen of his 50 career wins in the series have come on short tracks. Bristol, where he has seven career wins, and Richmond, where he has six, are at the top of the list. He’s a two-time winner at Martinsville.

If the series was still racing at North Wilkesboro (N.C.), a former short-track stop, Busch would probably have more than his share of victories there, too.

“I enjoy coming to this place more so now at this stage of my career than earlier in my career,” Busch, 33, said. “It’s due to a great team and all these guys and our fast … Camry.”

No driver has won from the pole here since Jimmie Johnson in 2013.

Under overcast skies, Busch captured the No. 1 qualifying position with a lap of 19.673 seconds (96.254 mph). It was the only round of the three he led. Older brother Kurt Busch was fastest in the second round, Ryan Blaney in first.

“We’ve actually had really good short-run speed so far and our long-run speed has been OK too,” Busch said. “I’ve just been able to really bust off some good lap times on the short run.

“We knew we would have the opportunity to qualify well if we hit all our marks … and we did. I still feel like we do a have a good race car and we can be a car to contend with tomorrow.”

Clint Bowyer (Stewart-Haas Racing Ford) will start second, with Denny Hamlin (JGR), Blaney (Team Penske Ford) and Aric Almirola (SHR) rounding out the top five.

Busch, Bowyer and Almirola are three of the eight Playoff drivers competing for the series championship.

Fellow contender Martin Truex Jr. (Furniture Row Racing) will start sixth, Kurt Busch (SHR) seventh and Joey Logano (Penske) 11th.

Kevin Harvick (SHR) and Chase Elliott (Hendrick Motorsports) will start 13th and 21st respectively, among the Playoff teams.

Busch has only started outside the top 10 once in his last nine Martinsville starts. He’s won twice, finished second twice and finished fifth twice in his last six.

Bowyer won here in the spring but admits his qualifying leaves something to be desired.

“Good God, after the way I’ve been qualifying it feels like I’m sitting on four poles,” he said. “We’re on the front row man.”

Maybe he wasn’t fastest Saturday but Bowyer won’t raise a fuss.

“Kyle is really good at laying laps down,” he said of the pole winner’s qualifying effort. “I like the Sunday afternoon drives.”

Graves returning to Roush Fenway

Scott Graves, who earned his first win as a crew chief while working at Roush Fenway Racing in 2012, is returning to the organization following a three-year stint at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Graves will return to RFR in 2019 as crew chief of the No. 6 Ford in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series according to a release from the Concord, N.C.-based racing organization. The group has already announced that Ryan Newman will become the driver of the No. 6 beginning next year.

The 2012 victory, which came in an Xfinity Series race at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International, was notable for a couple of reasons – in addition to being a milestone win for Graves, it was the last Xfinity Series win for former NASCAR racer Carl Edwards.

“Scott is an exceptional talent atop the pit box and he has done an outstanding job throughout his career – with multiple championship campaigns attesting to that,” Jack Roush, founder and co-owner of Roush Fenway Racing, said.

“He brings a strong engineering background to the table and we are excited about the opportunity to pair him with Ryan Newman going into the 2019 season.”

Graves most recently served as crew chief for Daniel Suarez and the No. 19 Toyota at JGR in the Cup Series. He left the position earlier this month.

He began his NASCAR career at RFR in 2006 as an engineer before transitioning into the role of crew chief.

He led driver Chris Buescher to the Xfinity Series championship in 2015 while at Roush, then guided Suarez to the title the following year at JGR.

JGR moved Suarez and Graves up to Cup in ’17, taking over that organization’s No. 19 entry following the sudden departure of Edwards.

In addition to being atop the pit box for Edwards’ final Xfinity win, Graves also was crew chief in ’14 when Buescher won at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, Ohio for his first career victory. Suarez’ first win in the series came with Graves at Michigan in 2016, and Kyle Busch picked up a win at Atlanta in ’17 with Graves calling the shots.

As a Cup crew chief, Graves has 100 starts between two drivers, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (2012-13) and Suarez (2017-18), with five top-five and 21 top-10 finishes.

He has eight wins as an Xfinity Series crew chief, and drivers under Graves’ direction have scored 38 top-five and 65 top-10 finishes.

Graves got his start as crew chief at Roush Fenway with Trevor Bayne at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway in 2012. Bayne won the pole and finished 16th.

The No. 6 entry at RFR has a long history – it was the first fielded by Roush when he became a NASCAR team owner in 1988 and was driven by Mark Martin.

In addition to the No. 6, which has featured Bayne and Matt Kenseth splitting driving chores with Matt Puccia serving as crew chief this season, RFR also fields the No. 17 Ford for Stenhouse Jr., in the Cup Series as well as the Nos. 16 and 60 in the Xfinity Series.

Elliott inches closer to final four spot

Is it too early to pencil in Chase Elliott as one of the four finalists who will be in the running for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship at Homestead Miami Speedway next month?

At the moment, the Hendrick Motorsports drivers appears to be as good of a bet as anyone and better than most.

Elliott won for the third time this season Sunday and the second time in three weeks when he won the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway.

Most folks seem to think it will be Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex in three of the four slots available for Homestead and a shot at the championship. The three have combined to win more than one-half of this season’s races and are the top three in laps led. They have also won three of the last four Cup championships.

Kick in a healthy number of bonus points earned through stage and race wins and while the three can’t coast into Homestead, their biggest concern is not beating themselves during these next three weeks.

With those matters seemingly settled, it’s been that fourth playoff spot that’s drawn the attention for much of the season. Kyle Larson was an early favorite, then fell out of favor for a bit, then resurfaced as a likely candidate.

But the Chip Ganassi Racing driver’s hopes and dreams came to an end Sunday at Kansas when he finished third and needed to finish first.

Brad Keselowski was another driver penciled in at the No. 4 spot and his late summer run only seemed to cement his place at the table. The Team Penske driver won at Darlington and then the regular-season finale at Indianapolis and then the opening playoff race at Las Vegas. Impressive stuff even if the 2012 champ warned that his group still had some catching up to do.

Unfortunately for Keselowski, time ran out at Kansas as well.

There were others – Ryan Blaney and Denny Hamlin and Erik Jones and Jimmie Johnson. But some only got as far as the first round while others fell out Sunday.

In the meantime, Elliott and the No. 9 team seem to have stepped up their game.

Not to dismiss Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola, other drivers who are just as much alive as Elliott.

But Logano hasn’t won since April, Bowyer since June. Kurt Busch won at Bristol in August and Almirola at Talladega earlier this month but none of the remaining tracks bear any resemblance to those two layouts.

Any one of those four could move on instead of Elliott. But it will probably require winning races and right now, Elliott’s the one doing that.

A different ‘Dega, until it wasn’t

TALLADEGA, Ala. – Maybe this one will be debated for a while, maybe it won’t, but it was a somewhat calm race on Sunday at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway for NASCAR’s Monster Energy Cup Series.

Surprisingly calm in fact. Particularly for a playoff race.

Not that it didn’t have its moments. Or moment. But for the most part, the track that used to bill its annual race dates as “white knuckle weekends” looked about as tame as an afternoon drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

“Look Ethel, the leaves are changing.”

They used to blame the track for being too fast and too dangerous when multicar pileups left more drivers in the care center than on the race track. Others pinned the fault on the drivers and that’s an argument that will never be won by either side.

The track is still fast and the racing, at 200-plus mph, continues to carry a certain danger. Sunday’s race wasn’t really any different.

But the lion seemed to have lost a few teeth.

You can send the thank you cards to Kannapolis, N.C., c/o Stewart-Haas Racing,

There are four SHR drivers competing in Cup and three of them combined to lead 155 of 193 laps in a race that went five laps beyond the originally scheduled distance.

Clint Bowyer was the only one out of the SHR camp who failed to lead a lap and he finished second.

Aric Almirola led only one lap. Actually, he only led a few hundred yards.

The distance didn’t matter. He was first to the checkered flag.

Meanwhile Kurt Busch started on the pole and kept his No. 41 Ford out front for 108 laps. Teammate Kevin Harvick led 46.

And that’s the way it appeared it would finish, all four team cars running 1-2-3-4 in one order or another.

And it would have, until a wreck involving Alex Bowman and William Byron and JJ Yeley and a couple of others brought out the eighth caution flag of the day on lap 187.

That incident pushed the race into overtime and fuel mileage suddenly became a hot topic.

Harvick was forced to pit road just before the final two-lap run when his car’s fuel cell began to run dry.

Busch stayed out and it looked as if he was going to make it. Until he didn’t.

He got as far as Turn 4 before his car sputtered and slowed. The finish line never looked so far away.

It took organization and cooperation, an all-for-one, one-for-all effort by SHR to make it work at Talladega and maybe folks will say that’s better than big crashes and injured drivers and there’s no argument there.

But it certainly was different.

Right up until the end of course.

Saturday notebook from Talladega

TALLADEGA, Ala. – Martin Truex Jr., a three-time Xfinity Series winner at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, hasn’t enjoyed the same sort of success in the Monster Energy Cup Series on NASCAR’s largest track.

The defending Cup Series champion, and driver of the No. 78 Toyota for Furniture Row Racing, heads into Sunday’s 1000Bulbs.com 500 looking for his first restrictor-plate victory.

“It’s crazy,” Truex, 38, said Saturday following the day’s lone practice session on the 2.66-mile layout. “I used to come here in the Busch Series days and the first three times I raced here, I won. I won at Daytona in the July race and I felt like it really wasn’t that difficult.

“Clearly all the stars and moons had lined up at those races for me because I really haven’t been able to reproduce that in the Cup Series.”

A year ago, Truex didn’t need outstanding performances on the series’ only two restrictor-plate tracks. The team, led by crew chief Cole Pearn, dominated the 1.5-mile venues which make up the bulk of the schedule. Seven of his eight wins came on the mile-and-a-half tracks. One came on a road course.

He went 13th and 34th at Daytona, 35th and 23rd here at Talladega.

Winning here, or at Daytona, he said, “would be a huge deal because it’s one of those styles of racing that I have won at yet in this series and it’s something that I’ve really worked on and I’ve tried hard to get better at.

“We’ve tried hard as a team as well … and it just hasn’t been in the cards for us yet.

“You want to be a guy that can win anywhere. You want to be a guy that the competitors look at you each and every week no matter what the track is that here’s a guy we’re going to have to beat.

“Including that aspect of it would be a big deal for me.”

• A LITTLE HELP HERE: Hendrick Motorsports driver Chase Elliott has already earned a spot in the next round of the playoffs. Teammate Alex Bowman has not. And Bowman sits 34 points below eighth-place Ryan Blaney.

Can the driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet aid his teammate?

“I know that if I was in his position I would certainly want at least my teammates not to hurt my effort,” Elliott said. “You don’t want to impede that progress, but I feel like (team owner Rick Hendrick) has always kind of been a race win guy … I don’t think he is ever going to let something like that pull me out of potential contention to win or me laying over to let him win.”

Those conversations haven’t really come up during his tenure at HMS, Elliott said. As for not hurting Bowman’s chances, “I’m certainly open to doing that,” he said.

“If he can move on as well, that does nothing but help all of us in our company.”

• PSYCHO-DEGA: Aric Almirola said he has worked with various nutritionists and physical conditioning coaches through the years, “and different people that have a lot of knowledge about the human body and how to make it perform at its best.”

Thus far, however, he’s avoided consulting a sports psychologist.

“I’m scared to work with any sort of psychologist about what they would tell me about my brain,” he said.

“I know some guys have and I know it’s big in the golfing community and … big in tennis and other individualized sports, but I have not.

“I think coming to Talladega you do have to have the right mindset … the right frame of mind and being positive about it and being excited.”

You’re already beaten, he said, if you arrive thinking “Oh man, why did I sign up to do this? We’re just going to wreck and this is ridiculous. I hate restrictor-plate racing.”

“Previous success … always helps the mindset coming to different race tracks and, for me, Talladega is a place where I’ve had success.”

A former winner at Daytona, Almirola has finished eighth or better in his last four Talladega starts.

Johnson, Knaus stand behind ’19 change

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.”

Knaus, Johnson won’t be paired in ‘19

The incredibly successful duo of crew chief Chad Knaus and driver Jimmie Johnson won’t be teamed together in 2019, according to a news release from Hendrick Motorsports.

On Wednesday, the organization announced crew chief changes for 2019 that impact the No. 48 team of Knaus/Johnson as well as the No. 24 entry driven by rookie William Byron and crew chief Darian Grubb.

Knaus, crew chief for Johnson since the California native began competing fulltime in 2003, will be paired with Byron next year while current Xfinity Series crew chief Kevin Meendering will take over the crew chief role for Johnson’s group.

Grubb, Byron’s current crew chief, will move into the role of technical director at HMS.

Together, Knaus and Johnson have won 81 points-paying races in NASCAR’s top series and seven championships. The win total is tops among active crew chiefs and third all-time, behind Dale Inman (193) and Leonard Wood (95).

Johnson, 43, has 83 career wins, earning two when Knaus was suspended by NASCAR. His seven championships are tied for the most in the series with two NASCAR Hall of Fame drivers – Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

It is the longest active driver/crew chief pairing in NASCAR.

“Chad and Jimmie will go down as one of the greatest combinations in sports history,” team owner Rick Hendrick said in the news release announcing the changes. “They defied the odds by performing at a championship level for longer than anyone could’ve possible imagined.”

Hendrick said there was agreement among the three that it was time for a change. Johnson is currently mired in the longest losing streak of his career at 53 races; he has won multiple races for 16 consecutive seasons, a streak that’s in jeopardy of coming to an end.

“It’s no secret that Chad and Jimmie have experienced their ups and downs over the years,” Hendrick said. “They’re fierce competitors, great friends and have immense respect for one another. They also fight like brothers.

“All three of us agree it’s finally time for a new challenge and that a change will benefit them and the organization.”

Johnson and Knaus did run well enough to earn one of this year’s 16 Playoff berths and Johnson nearly snapped his winless streak in the cutoff race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, spinning out after contact with Martin Truex Jr. in the last turn. Instead, Johnson failed to advance to the second round when he lost out on a tiebreaker for the final transfer spot.

Even so, it still marked Johnson and the team’s 15th consecutive Playoff appearance, a record no other group can claim.

Meendering, 37, is in charge of the No. 1 Xfinity Series team with driver Elliott Sadler and fielded by JR Motorsports. The organization is co-owned by Hendrick, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kelley Earnhardt.

Prior to moving to JRM, Meendering worked his way up through the ranks at HMS, starting out as an intern and eventually serving as lead engineer for the No. 88 team with Earnhardt Jr.

“We already know how well he works with our people and that he’s a respected, forward-thinking crew chief,” Hendrick said. “Having worked with a veteran driver like Elliott Sadler for three years is extremely valuable experience. He’s the right fit for Jimmie at the right time.”

Byron, the 2017 Xfinity Series champ, has three top-10 finishes and is 22nd in points through 30 Cup races.

Hendrick said he has given Knaus full rein with the No. 24 group next year.

“I’ve asked him to build another winner and given him the green light to put his stamp on the team and to it his way,” he said.