Just as he was in 2002, Chad Knaus was tossed the keys to a new team by Rick Hendrick last season and told to be successful.
And just like in ’02 with Jimmie Johnson, there was no step-by-step playbook for Knaus on how to turn William Byron into a contender. But Knaus, along with a revamped No. 24 team, did just that. Although Knaus and Byron finished just outside the top 10 in the final point standings (11th), they were the second-highest finishing Hendrick Motorsports car last year.
“I think we had a solid 2019 season,” said Knaus. “I’m disappointed we didn’t win a race. I’m disappointed we didn’t make it to Homestead. I’m disappointed we didn’t finish top 10 in points. But if you really sit back and look at the reality of it, we led laps competitively, we ran in the top five competitively, we ran in the top 10 competitively, we got better at the end of the season, and that’s really all you can ask for at this point with what we were doing.”
Byron’s numbers skyrocketed under the guidance of Knaus.
Kicking things off with the Daytona 500, Byron won five poles after earning none in his rookie season. He also went from four top-10 finishes in 2018 to 13 top-10 finishes last season while also going from zero top-five finishes in ’18 to five last season. Byron led a total of 223 laps, up from the 61 the year before.
Even more, Knaus saw an attitude change in the young driver. The Byron who sat with Knaus at the end of 2018 is different than the one who walks into the shop today. The 22-year-old has his head high, shoulders back, and projects confidence.
“It was a lot different working with William,” Knaus said. “A young man with a lot of potential with limited experience for sure coming into the 2019 season. Look, he’s a different person than what Jimmie was. Jimmie and I were very similar in age, very similar in points in our career when we started here. William and I couldn’t be any more different. He’s a millennial. I don’t even know what I am. Gen-whatever.
“We (are) pretty different, and to be able to communicate with him, understand what his needs were with his style of driving and his vocabulary, took some time, which was a lot of fun for me. I really, really enjoy the team-building aspect of things. I think that’s so much fun. Getting new guys, new gals, and new positions and growing them and maturing them to where they can succeed is really a lot of fun for me. I get the most enjoyment out of that now than I have probably anything else. So, getting those people in place and watching the team evolve was just awesome for me.”
For this season, the agenda is getting to victory lane. If Knaus could script it, he’d like to get a Byron a win early in the year to build momentum for the playoffs. Then the goal is to make the top eight in points.
“If we can get in those final eight, if we can make it to that block, I feel like we can make it to (the finale) in Phoenix,” said Knaus. “I really do.”
Listen to the full interview with Knaus in the podcast below: