When a fan thinks of pure, utter dominance, they’ll likely look no further than the duo that was seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson and his longtime crew chief Chad Knaus.
Johnson and Knaus solidified their dynasty between seven championships, 81 wins, and countless crown jewels through their 17-year relationship together. Only two of Johnson’s 83 career wins came without Knaus atop the box.
In October of 2018, Hendrick Motorsports announced that the pair would split heading into the 2019 season. Knaus would go on to crew chief rising star William Byron, and Kevin Meendering would call the shots for Johnson heading into the 2019 season.
The California driver opened up about the relationship in a new episode of In Depth with Graham Bensinger.
“I think the mistake we both made at the end of our time together was maybe not evolving enough in our relationship,” Johnson told Bensinger. “To the ‘new’ us. When times got tough, Chad reverted back to the crew chief that he was when we first started.”
When asked to clarify the latter part of the statement, Johnson brought up how Knaus would micromanage Johnson. The seven-time champion went into detail about how Knaus would tell the then-rookie driver where the mistakes on the track were being made, and how to fix those issues. Fast forward to the latter part of Johnson’s career, with multiple trophy cases filled with achievements and accolades, and the old way of doing things simply wasn’t a viable option any longer.
As Johnson explained to Bensinger, “That was the start of the decay, over probably a five to an eight-year period of time. He and I so wish we could go back and correct that because now looking back on it, it was a defense mechanism for him and he was only doing it because he cared. I just got tired of hearing it so I started firing back. In the car, while racing, instead of being focused on the job I would start thinking about what the hell I was going to say to him.”
The relationship between driver and crew chief is a special bond. Johnson has mentioned in previous interviews that the brutally honest nature of the relationship was simply a part of their unique communication.
“People were like ‘how can you let him talk to you that way,’ but the trust we had for one another, I would say 80% of it, it was just the brutal truth. Honestly, even though it pissed me off at times, that brutal honesty is what made us get better. And just at the end – if we could have handled it in a different way with one another, we could have stayed together through the end of our careers, and potentially got the eighth.”
It was shortly after the 2016 NASCAR Cup Series season, after Johnson got his record-tying seventh championship, that Johnson started to realize a change needed to be made.
The now seven-time champion spent time in Aspen following the historic season, much to the dismay of his champion crew chief.
“Things started to get personal,” Johnson explained. “Him questioning where my heart was with the team, the time and effort I wanted to spend and be with the team, was really that starting fracture point.”
It reached a point where professional help was sought between the two. It wasn’t about finger-pointing; it was about figuring out new ways to better each other.
“It really helped us for a while. I would say as far back as 2013, is when we really had some professional help, and it got us to winning the championship in 2016, and then things kind of unraveled from there. But it was a big help.”
It’s far from the first time both Johnson and Knaus had to be sat down to discuss their grievances with each other. Prior to Johnson winning his first title in 2006, the infamous “milk and cookies meeting” took place following the 2005 finale in Homestead.
Johnson had crashed out of the finale, losing sight of what could have been his first championship. The frustration between the two was palpable.
Rick Hendrick called Johnson and Knaus for a meeting at the shop and put out plates of cookies and milk. The bossman told the duo, as commonplace with misbehaved children, that no one was leaving until the grievances were figured out. If they were going to act like children, Hendrick would treat them like children. The meeting helped ignite what would become five-year domination for team No. 48, with five consecutive titles, and 35 wins.
The professional help Johnson says even helped his personal life away from the track. Johnson credited his wife, Chandra, with dealing with Johnson during those times and helping the now 46-year-old navigate the troubled waters.
“She was the brunt end in dealing with those emotions from week to week, month to month, year to year. But she definitely can say that professional help did have an effect and that it certainly professionally and personally in applying those things to my personal life”.
Between the two, all is not lost. Johnson says the relationship has come full circle now. Johnson is dabbling into IMSA and endurance racing, and Knaus is with Johnson’s efforts in IMSA.
“That honest, respect and bond that we have just kind of worked its way through,” Johnson said. “Now we are in a spot that is really amazing.”
Knaus left the pit box following his time with Byron in 2020 and is now the vice president of the competition at Hendrick Motorsports.
The organization just secured their 14th Cup Series title this past weekend in Phoenix thanks to California’s Kyle Larson.