Jimmie Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the No. 48 team made sure to have a cooler of beer on pit road after the checkered flag at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
It was important, Johnson said, that the team have one quick beer together, toast the last 17 years and say thank you. Not only were Johnson and Knaus closing the book on their pairing together, but the team ran its final race with Lowe’s on the car — a partnership that had been along for the ride since Johnson arrived in the NASCAR Cup Series in late 2001.
“It’s tough,” Johnson said of the night. “When you think of the relationship with Lowe’s, hate to see that come to an end. Eighteen years when you look at my first three races I ran for them. Everything we accomplished together, their belief in me, and the company’s support in me and this team over the years. So that’s one piece, and then the other piece obviously with Chad.
“It’s time for us to move on and have a new project and have new people. But, he’s my brother. There’s no way around it. So, not an easy situation. This year has not been easy. Especially since the second half of the year as we knew it was coming … but season’s behind us now and look forward to a good offseason and get geared up for 2019.”
Johnson started the race 19th and ended the night with a 14th-place finish, although Johnson ran inside the top 10 at one point.
“It was not the night we wanted, obviously,” Knaus said. “Not what I wanted by any means. It was looking reasonable there the first half of the race … we were passing cars and making some headway, and that was fun. Second half of the race went the other way for us.
“All in all, it’s been a long run, it’s been a lot of fun, we’ve had a great time. We’ve had a lot of success and it’s just time to move on.”
Johnson admitted this was the toughest season of his career. The team went winless, and while Johnson made the playoffs, he was eliminated after the first round.
With 2018 complete, Johnson marked a career low in laps led (40), which was also the first time he did not crack triple-digit laps led. His 14th-place finish in the points is also his worst result since he began full-time, as was his total of top-10 finishes (11) and top-five finishes (two).
“ was pretty tough, but this was still tougher than that, especially to work through the decision to go separate ways with Chad,” Johnson said. “That was early in the year, mid-season when we made that decision. Just glad to finish with a respectable result today but we’ve got a lot of work to do as a company, I’ve got a lot of work to do with my new team, we got a lot of work to do with this new package.”
Knaus had thought the team was making a turnaround over the summer. He even said at one point he saw a light at the end of the tunnel because of all the work that was being put in.
“Well, I thought we were getting faster,” Knaus said. “But the light was a damn train. Unfortunately, we didn’t find the speed we thought we had midway through the year.”
This season was the first time Johnson and Knaus went winless together.
“I’ve had such a fortunate career and would love to keep that streak alive, clearly, that’s not the case,” Johnson said. “But instead of reflecting on this year and how bad it was because I know that reality, I’m living it, I just think it’s important for me and the team right now to look back on what we’ve done together over 17 years together.
“New sponsor. New crew chief. Whole new rules package. ’19 is going to be a clean start for myself and this 48 team.”
Knaus offered a small laugh and smile when bluntly summing it up:
“Yeah, it was a f***ing awful year. It was awful. It was the worst year ever. I’ve never raced a year in my life and not won something. This is the first year that’s happened. So, yeah, it was very disappointing, but this is the reality. It’s a big boy sport and you have to perform, and if you don’t perform, you don’t win.”