The impending split of Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus is not because something is broken, insists the duo at the center of it.
“It’s not like we’re trying to kill each other; that’s not where this is,” Knaus said Thursday. “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.
“We have a young driver in William Byron. We’ve got growth within the company. We’ve got a fairly young crew chief in Kevin [Meendering, who will take over on Johnson’s No.48] that needs an opportunity. There’s a lot of things that are falling at the right place right now. Jimmie and I, we love each other. We fight like brothers which has been perfectly documented. It’s perfectly fine; we’re okay with that. We’ve answered way harder questions than this before. It’s just the right time for everybody.”
Driver and crew chief alike repeatedly mentioned personal growth and the timing during the informal gathering at the Hendrick campus. The Nos. 24 and 48 teams are largely expected to stay together next year: the crew chiefs will swap, but the crews, car and equipment will remain more or less where they are.
A lot of “very open conversations” and discussions had taken place around the decision to separate Johnson and Knaus, and both said making the call ultimately came down to team owner Rick Hendrick and what Hendrick Motorsports wanted.
“It hasn’t been a short-term decision or something that just happened in the recent time,” said Johnson. “It’s been an ongoing conversation that we’ve all had. The timing, just the way that it worked out, [is] this is the week that it’s coming out to the public and we’re announcing it. Over the years, we’ve certainly had our heated moments, but the commitment we’ve had to one another, our relationship and the success of the team; we’ve invested a lot in that and put a lot of time in it.
“The decision to split up… it took a long time to make that decision as well. It’s not something that was like ‘OK, yeah that’s what we’re going to do.’ We put a lot of thought into it, worked on it, and I think that we have a really strong plan moving forward.”
The longest running crew chief and driver relationship in NASCAR, the 17-year pairing of Johnson and Knaus has delivered enormous success. Winners in all of the significant events on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule, 81 total victories and a record-tying seven championships, Johnson and Knaus rose to the top together and understood the expectation that they would remain together until the very end.
Both recently signed deals to continue competing through the 2020 season, and when asked why they didn’t stick it out until then, both again said it was about timing. Johnson noted discussions along those lines did take place, but said at some point it’s about going with your gut and “it just feels right.”
“We both are fierce competitors and want to win,” said Johnson. “The last two years, although we did win three races last year, the year ended, it was difficult. This year has been tough, as you guys all know and have lived with us. We’re fierce competitors, 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. 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.”
With six races left this season, the No. 48 team is still focused on ending a 53-race winless streak dating back to June 2017.
“I want to stay with the 48 and ride this thing out for the rest of the year,” said Knaus. “I think we are at the point that we can still go out there and win races. The team is just starting to really get rolling.
“So, yeah, we’re sticking this thing out. We can win a race or two before the end of the year, starting this weekend.”