Jimmie Johnson could win an eighth Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship this season.
So could Johnson’s long-time crew chief Chad Knaus.
But one thing is certain: they won’t be doing it together.
After 17 years, seven titles and 81 of Johnson’s 83 race victories together at NASCAR’s highest level, Johnson and Knaus will start the 2019 season with different partners. Kevin Meendering will get his shot as Johnson’s crew chief. Knaus will call the shots from the pit box of sophomore Cup driver William Byron.
“It definitely is a new challenge, and I welcome it,” Johnson said during a Tuesday question-and-answer session with reporters at Hendrick Motorsports. “One thing that I did know was the way things were going, where Chad and I ended up, that needed to change.
“That wasn’t bringing the best out of either one of us. We weren’t delivering like we needed to. I knew that much last year, for sure, and I’m just excited to get this fresh start and see where it takes us.”
In 2018, Johnson and Knaus suffered through what was unquestionably their worst year together. For the first time in his career, Johnson drove for a full season without winning a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race. His two top five finishes and 40 laps led were both career lows.
Hence, the breakup of the longest-running driver/crew chief pairing in the NASCAR garage.
“I’ve never been in this position,” Johnson said. “There is a lot of ‘new’ to it. There’s no way around that. But I do have the history of knowing everybody here at the shop, so it doesn’t feel totally new—but largely new, for sure.”
Johnson’s situation isn’t the only thing that’s new. The performance effects of NASCAR’s new higher-downforce/lower-horsepower competition package are largely unknown at this point. On the other hand, Hendrick has had a full season to acclimate to Chevrolet’s new Camaro and the restructuring of the organization that brought all four of its teams under one roof.
So, despite the frustrations of 2018, Johnson has cause for optimism this year as he pursues a record championship that would break a tie with NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt.
It just won’t be with Knaus.
“I guess I’ve switched into my new reality of trying to win my eighth with Kevin,” Johnson said when asked if he would have mixed feelings about winning a title with his long-time crew chief. “We accomplished so much together I can do nothing but smile and warm up inside, thinking about the success we’ve had as a group—all of that with Chad.
“I don’t know. I hope to have to live through that and tell you what it really means.”
Knaus acknowledged that seeing Johnson win an eighth title without him would be a bittersweet experience.
“Yeah, of course,” Knaus said. “Obviously, I would have loved to have done that with Jimmie. That’s going to be painful in one respect, but I’ll be proud as heck of the guy. That’s a huge accomplishment. I really hope he does get it—I really do.
“Now, I say that saying that I hope he gets it if we don’t. Right? My goal is for us to be battling in the final four at Homestead this year and racing tooth-and-nail for it, coming across the start/finish line on fire, upside-down, all that stuff like you want to see. That’s the goal.”
Knaus would need an eighth championship to tie NASCAR Hall of famer Dale Inman for most by a crew chief.
Johnson simply wants to add Meendering to the list of crew chiefs who have won a title, and he started the get-acquainted process during the offseason.
“Cold beers help,” quipped the seven-time champion.