Chad Knaus described the feeling as “bittersweet” as he sat in one of the first few rows at Jimmie Johnson’s press conference in which he explained his decision to retire.
“All of you know how much I love that man,” said Knaus.
Knaus was the crew chief who guided Johnson to seven NASCAR Cup Series championships and 83 wins. Coming into the series together in 2002, Knaus and Johnson (pictured above in 2018) felt they had one opportunity to prove their abilities, and Knaus said Johnson rose to the occasion.
“He did a phenomenal job as the pilot of our car, and we grew together,” said Knaus. “We grew families together; we did a lot of things together. It’s emotional for me for sure, but man, it’s just so great. I’m so excited to have this next avenue in his life and see what he’s going to do. There’s a lot of potential in him still — he’s got an opportunity to go drive a lot of other series and have fun, and what he’s got to do with his children and his wife. It’s just the beginning for him.
“I think it’s great. He’s still doing this while he’s young enough that he can experience a lot of life; a lot more than any of us ever will.”
Knaus and Johnson split after 17 years together following the end of the 2018 season, but their bond has only strengthened. In their time together, the duo won every major race on the schedule, tied Cale Yarborough with three consecutive titles in ’08, and then took it further by becoming the first ones to win five straight. A seventh, improbable title came in ’16.
Along the way, there have been fights and trust issues. Before their dominance began, Rick Hendrick even had to sit them down for a meeting complete with milk and cookies — served on a Mickey Mouse plate. Knaus and Johnson have gone through suspensions, winless droughts, and history together.
Even though Johnson was an unproven talent who only had one Xfinity Series win before getting the job at Hendrick, Knaus said he knew “pretty early” he had a good driver on his hands.
“Really early,” Knaus admitted. “We went to Las Vegas in the beginning of 2002, in February I think it was, and what we did was we went through a whole series of runs on the racetrack. We had data acquisition on the car but what I was doing was not using the data acquisition, I was using Jimmie to tell me what the car was doing and then I would go back and look at the data to see if the information was truly in parallel — and he was spot on with everything that he said.
“At that point I said, man, this guy is going to be good to work with because he’s able to describe to me what’s going on with the race car and I can see that. It was pretty impressive.”
The two have been gone on vacation together, attended each other’s wedding, and were among the first to see each other’s children after they born. Knaus said Johnson called him on Tuesday night with the news of retirement. The two talked for about 40 minutes about a lot of different things.
“We’ve done a lot,” Knaus chuckled. “Things that you know and things that you don’t know and things that you should never know. If you think about it, our first win together, celebrating that win in Fontana that night to going to our first championship and me busting into his room and blasting him with champagne as he and (Chandra) are in bed sleeping. To winning our seventh championship together, to the birth of our children and marriages.
“There’s so many things that most people in professional sports don’t have a partner that have gone through those times together, and I’m honored to have been that guy.”
Knaus believes that at some point, Johnson will be able to soak in all that he’s done in his career. In turn, Knaus thinks the sport will rise around Johnson and praise him as is deserved. But it’s so hard for a driver to understand their impact while in the middle of their career. Knaus is one of many who expect Johnson will be enshrined in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
“He’s so frustrating to me,” said Knaus of Johnson’s legacy. “I tried to turn him into a dirty driver at times. I tried to make him more aggressive at times. I tried to do all this stuff and shame on me for doing that because, just like Mr. Hendrick said, he’s going to leave this sport with everybody knowing that he did it the right way, and he didn’t shove people around.
“He couldn’t crash somebody if he had to. He just doesn’t have the capability; it’s not in his DNA. So what he’s done, the way he’s done it, the races he’s won, the people he’s touched, you could look at his accomplishments and say that’s what’s going to be longstanding, but I can tell you from what he’s done for me personally, and what he’s done for a lot our friends and our family, that’s what his legacy is, just being a damn good guy and a hell of race car driver.”
Of how proud he is of Johnson, the driver and person, Knaus can only laugh.
“Oh my gosh, kidding me?” he said. “I really look at him like a brother. I really do. So I think like you would with any sibling you want to see what’s best for them and you want them to able to attain their goals, and you want them to be able to do things the way they want to do.
“The one thing that’s great about this whole thing and his career is he can do what he wants and how he wants to do it. I think that’s really special. Not a lot of people get that opportunity.”