This is the sixth in a series of stories reflecting on Jimmie Johnson’s NASCAR success from those who competed against him or with him at Hendrick Motorsports. Johnson has returned to the industry as a stakeholder in Legacy Motor Club and will run select races in 2023.
As superior the equipment and race team around Jimmie Johnson were, to try and argue that Johnson didn’t have talent would be imprudent.
Johnson’s peers don’t hesitate to praise a driver they lost to more often than not. Hendrick Motorsports teammates included.
But if that isn’t convincing enough, take it from the man who saw it up close and personal. Chad Knaus had a front-row seat to Johnson’s greatness for 17 years as the crew chief of the No. 48 team, and while Knaus is often credited with much of Johnson’s success, he saw what his driver brought to the equation.
“Jimmie was extremely talented,” Knaus tells RACER. “We were very fortunate to have him in the timeframe that we were able to work together. His ability on the track was just remarkable from a racing standpoint. We weren’t always the best during practice, we weren’t always the best in qualifying, but his racecraft was at such a high level compared to, honestly, anyone else I’ve ever worked with.”
Johnson had incredible awareness of what was going on with the race. From things like changing track conditions, a moving groove, and even how his rival’s cars were handling. He used all that was to his advantage in sizing up the competition and attacking.
“He could pass really, really well, and I know that sounds funny, but that’s what he was really great at,” says Knaus. “There are a lot of guys that go fast in a race car, but he knew how to get by somebody else’s race car, which is a craft in its own.”
Knaus had one full year of crew chief experience at the Cup Series level (for Stacey Compton) before being paired with Johnson at Hendrick Motorsports. Johnson was an unknown and unproven rookie, but he had gotten Jeff Gordon’s attention while racing together in the Xfinity Series. It didn’t take Knaus long to realize his young driver would be just fine in the big leagues.
“We were pretty rigorous early on trying to understand one another, much more so than I think a lot of people had been in history before that and much more than what anybody can do,” Knaus says. “Just from the standpoint of as soon as we signed on the dotted line and competed to one another, we hit the racetrack, and we tested every opportunity we could. We went through a series of tests where the car was fully instrumented and had all the data acquisition on it, and Jimmie would go make laps, he would come in, and he and I would have dialogue and talk about what he felt in the car.
“Obviously, I knew what the car was doing dynamically from looking at the data and then we’d make an adjustment based on what he said, without him really knowing about it and send him back on track and say, ‘Hey, is this what happened?’ Then we’d review the data together to really start to make sure what he was saying to me at that point in time was truly what the car was doing, and it was pretty amazing to me the way he was able to really break down what the race car was doing at so many different areas of a racetrack. Much more so than what a lot of other drivers have ever been able to do. It’s been funny. We’ve had a lot of drivers pass through with us and sit in on debriefs, and they’d hear Jimmie, and quite honestly, there’d be some drivers just say stuff to make sure they sounded like Jimmie because he was legitimately so good at telling me everything the car was doing.”
Knaus never had to worry about Johnson pulling his weight on the team. While Knaus and his crew were the masterminds of building fast cars and calling great races, Johnson came through in crunch time and could put himself in situations others might not have made work.
One thing that might have been infuriating to the competition was that it didn’t matter what variables were thrown at Knaus, Johnson and company. They always adapted and succeeded regardless of the generation of car Cup Series teams were competing with, the schedule and changing playoff formats.
“Jimmie had his strengths and weaknesses,” says Knaus. “What we were able to do as we went through our career is identify where he was strong, and that changes depending upon the package, car, and the time of year and situations. And we were also able to identify where he maybe wasn’t great and focus on those. We did a lot of that. We did a lot of working together to pinpoint, OK, this racetrack we think we have a pretty good handle on, and we know Jimmie can carry us.”
Dover is one example that Knauss points to. It was Johnson’s personal playground for many years, as he and Knaus racked up 11 wins together there.
“Going to Dover, Jimmie could be fast driving a pickup truck. He just got that track,” Knaus says. “But there were other venues where maybe Jimmie wasn’t as strong and we could really hyper-focus on that to raise the performance of the car to match where he was off a little bit. The only to do that is to have frank conversations and real dialogue, and Jimmie was never afraid of that.”
It was ironic Knaus mentions their frank conversations because one now-famous example led to their championship dynasty. Knaus and Johnson had been going at each other so much that team owner Rick Hendrick sat them down for what is often referred to as the ‘milk and cookies’ meeting – if they were going to act like kids, Hendrick reasoned, he’d shut them in a room together with kids’ snacks until they sorted things out.
The tough times led to an understanding and renewed vigor to chase championships and the season after that meeting, 2006, was the first of five straight. There was an unmatched intensity to how Knaus and Johnson could push each other to be better in their respective roles.
If there were times Johnson had to understand he needed to improve instead of blaming the race car, he did. Conversely, Knaus and the team would have to shoulder when Johnson did all he could and the car needed to be better.
“He would challenge me and I would challenge him and it was always for the betterment of the team, and always for the better of the product we would deliver,” says Knaus. “But that’s hard. Those are hard conversations, and they are hard conversations to have consistently because relationships take maintenance, and performance takes maintenance. A race car and a race team are kind of like the Golden Gate Bridge – you start to paint it on one side, and by the time you get to the other side, you’ve got to go all the way back to the other side and start painting again.
“That is the maintenance level that is motor sports. It gets tough to have those conversations over and over again. But they have to be had and Jimmie knew that, and he wasn’t afraid to approach me with those things, and I wasn’t afraid to approach him.”
Knaus praises Johnson’s drive and tenacity to continuously get better, which he describes as “second to none.”
“There is nobody that has ever sat in a race that has been as driven as Jimmie Johnson,” says Knaus. “That’s just obvious with his performance, what he’s accomplished on and off the racetrack.”
Knaus led Johnson to all seven of his Cup Series championships and 81 of his 83 career wins. Among those were triumphs in prestigious Daytona, Darlington and Indianapolis events. Perhaps even more impressive, the duo won on every type of racetrack in the series.
“He was really good,” Knaus says. “He was a really great race car driver and still is to some levels. But in that period of time when we were winning multiple championships and contending for race wins on a consistent basis, he was at the top of his game.
“If you’re trying to compare a Dale Earnhardt or a Richard Petty or Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson – name them all and different eras and different things – I think Jimmie winning 80-something races and leading x-number of laps in the era in which he did it was pretty astonishing.”
And now Johnson is back for more with Legacy Motor Club.
“Don’t be surprised if he pulls off a victory,” says Knaus. “He’s pretty good. We’ll see how it goes.”