Jimmie Johnson split with crew chief Chad Knaus fueled by need for ‘fresh start’

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CONCORD, N.C. — Maybe it was a little symbolic that the snacks provided Thursday by Hendrick Motorsports when Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson met the media didn’t include any milk and cookies.

At least symbolically, the duo had finally exhausted the supply.

Johnson and Knaus, who combined for seven Cup titles over a 17-year run where Johnson won 83 races, believe 2019 is the right time for a fresh start. HMS announced Wednesday that Knaus will crew chief William Byron, while Kevin Meendering will take over as crew chief for Johnson.

“I do feel that we have put a lot of time and energy into the 17 years that we’ve had and a fresh start would suit us both well,” Johnson said. “That excitement and energy and commitment involved, the learning, the communication that takes place to start a new opportunity, there’s some magic in that.

“When new things start up, there’s always some extra energy and excitement around it. With that in mind comes opportunity for both cars, both teams.”

The two stressed they continue to be friends as Johnson rides a 53-race winless streak, the longest of his career.

“You can sense that it’s not that things are broken and we’ve been in fistfights,” Johnson said.

But with Meendering having spent three years working with Elliott Sadler and Hendrick wanting him on the Cup side, and the 20-year-old rookie Byron being a prime candidate after his first Cup season to learn from Knaus, the time seemed right for a change.

“It’s not like we’re trying to kill each other,” Knaus said. “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.

“In order to be committed in a teamwork environment for that long, there’s a lot of deep digging that you have to get through. We’ve done that. We’ve put forth the effort. It’s time right now to do something different.”

Early in their relationship after a failed championship run in 2005, team owner Rick Hendrick got Knaus and Johnson for a meeting where he served milk and cookies to get the two who butted heads like brothers to focus on working together. The story became a symbol of how the two superstars could thrive with their intense competitive natures and they rattled off five consecutive Cup titles from 2006-2010. They also captured the 2013 and 2016 titles.

“That was a starting point of us both having a lot of personal growth,” Johnson said. “Over the years, there haven’t been as many documented moments, but I can promise you the reason we lasted 17 years together — it started with milk and cookies, but many other discussions, meetings, sessions over beers and communicating on a deep level and a level that is a brotherhood more than a working relationship.

“That’s how you go 17 years.”

The 17-year relationship is unprecedented in the current state of NASCAR, where Brad Keselowski and Paul Wolfe have the second-longest current driver-crew chief relationship finishing up their eighth year together.

Ultimately, it was up to Hendrick to make the decision to have Knaus and Johhnson split. The duo didn’t say exactly when the topic was first broached, and the decision wasn’t made just this week.

“Whichever one of us was pissed anytime the last 16 years,” Knaus quipped as to when the decision was first talked about it.

They apparently didn’t argue much with Hendrick.

“You have to argue internally a little bit to make sure that you’re buying into it,” Knaus said. “But I think we all understood what we had gone through over the years and the performance of the 48 [team] right now, that it’s time to go ahead and do something different.”

The 48 team was once the stalwart of Hendrick Motorsports. But for the last two seasons, Chase Elliott has appeared as the strongest driver who has made it deeper into the playoffs.

“The Chad and Jimmie story is a great book,” HMS Vice President of Competition Jeff Andrews said. “If you were to sit down and write that book from cover to cover and you were to sit down and you read that, you might think you know how the last few chapters of that book is going to go.

“But in any great book, when you get to the last five or six chapters, there’s change and there’s an unknown surprise there that really makes the book of Jimmie and Chad even more special.”

Knaus didn’t want to characterize it as an end of the book.

“I’m sad that this chapter is …,” Knaus said before rephrasing a response in meeting with the media. “It’s not over. People think the era is over. You can’t erase what we’ve done. It’s not over. It’s going to live forever.”



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