CONCORD, N.C. – This Sunday, Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus will make their final start as a driver-crew chief duo.
The 2018 NASCAR Cup Series season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway will bring to a close an iconic, 17-year run with Johnson and Knaus together on the No. 48 team.
"Chad and Jimmie will go down as one of the greatest combinations in sports history," Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick said. "They defied the odds by performing at a championship level for longer than anyone could’ve possibly imagined. What they’ve accomplished together has been absolutely remarkable and will be celebrated for generations.
“This has been an incredible, storybook run."
It was a partnership that brought with it unprecedented success from the very beginning.
When they first came together as driver and crew chief of the No. 48 team in 2002, Johnson was 26. Knaus was 30.
And both were unknown commodities.
“Many weren’t sure Chad was ready for that opportunity, and many thought I didn’t deserve the opportunity that I had,” Johnson recalled. “So, we both had a chip on our shoulders, and I think being in such a similar place and fighting that battle together created the foundation for that bond we have.”
They set the tone right away on the racetrack.
Starting the 2002 season at Daytona International Speedway, the No. 48 team captured the Daytona 500 pole.
“That kind of got things off to the right start for us, let the industry know that we weren’t just there to ride around,” Johnson said.
Just 10 races into the season, they had their first win together. Johnson took the lead from NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott and held it for the final 14 laps to reach Victory Lane in Fontana, California.
"I think immediately we had success because we developed that trust with one another, and that’s carried for 17 years.”Chad Knaus
The No. 48 team won two more times that year – a sweep of Dover International Speedway – to tie for the most victories by a driver-crew chief duo in a rookie campaign.
“When we came in, nobody knew what we were going to have,” Knaus said. “Jimmie and I at that point said, ‘Look, this is our opportunity. If either of us fails here, neither of us is going to be successful.’ So, we bought into each other very, very quickly. I believed in Jimmie wholeheartedly and he believed in me in the same fashion. I think immediately we had success because we developed that trust with one another, and that’s carried for 17 years.”
Over those 17 years, Johnson and Knaus have compiled 601 starts together, earning 81 wins – the second-most all-time behind Richard Petty and crew chief Dale Inman – and a record-tying seven NASCAR Cup Series championships, including a record five straight.
Among those victories are plenty of milestones, including four Brickyard 400 wins, four wins in the 600-mile race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, two Southern 500 wins and a Daytona 500 win. They won the NASCAR All-Star Race four times.
They finished inside the top five 218 times and inside the top 10 344 times, leading more than 18,000 laps together along the way.
The only driver-crew chief pairing to make the playoffs in every year of its existence, they are also the only duo to put together a four-race win streak – which they did in 2007 – in the last 20 years.
Now, on the verge of their 602nd – and final – start together, Johnson is 43 and Knaus is 47. Both are married with children.
“Jimmie and I have spent a lifetime together,” Knaus said. “We’ve been through a lot. The birth of our children, he stood up in my wedding, he was the first one to know that I was dating my wife before anybody else. There are so many things that you just can’t even begin to imagine.
“The thing that I think I’m proudest of is that they all don’t revolve around racing.”
Johnson agreed that through all the ups and downs on the racetrack, it’s everything that has happened away from it that has meant the most in his relationship with Knaus.
"The friendship and the bond that we have, it’s almost like a brotherhood."Jimmie Johnson
“There are those deep moments and a bond that we have that’s much deeper than racing,” the driver said. “The racing the last couple of years has certainly had its challenges, but the friendship and the bond that we have, it’s almost like a brotherhood, which is pretty crazy to have that opportunity within a work environment.”
In 2019, the two will move on to new opportunities.
Knaus will step into the role of crew chief of the No. 24 team with William Byron, who just won Cup Series rookie of the year. Kevin Meendering will move from his current crew chief position at JR Motorsports to take over as crew chief of the No. 48 team with Johnson.
“Those guys love each other,” Hendrick said of Johnson and Knaus. “At the same time, I think you need something fresh. I think both of them need a challenge more than just (championship) number eight.
“I think this gives everybody involved a new challenge.”
And both Johnson and Knaus said they’re excited to tackle those challenges.
It’s a big change after 17 seasons together, but it’s one that both men are ready to embrace.
Neither knows exactly what to expect in terms of emotions after the checkered flag waves this Sunday at Homestead and their partnership comes to a close. But there’s one thing both are sure of – “there’s nothing to be sad about.”
“We’ve had tears of joy, we’ve had tears of pain, we’ve grown as friends, as teammates,” Knaus said. “There’s nothing about what is happening or has happened that is bad. Everything has been positive. We’ve won a bunch of races, we’ve developed a lot of great bonds and friends, we’ve bolstered a lot of careers – there’s a lot of good things that have happened with the 48 car over the course of the last 17 years that I’m extremely proud of.”
“I think this gives everybody involved a new challenge.”Rick Hendrick
With the duo constantly striving to make their No. 48 Lowe’s for Pros Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 faster and challenge for wins on the racetrack, there hasn’t been a whole lot of time for reflecting with the season still ongoing.
But both men recognize the incredible amount they have accomplished together. They’ve had a “storybook” run that they couldn’t have imagined when they first teamed up in 2002.
“I definitely knew we had something special as a team,” Johnson said. “I knew something cool was going to happen – I had no idea it would be this level, this scale, but I knew something good was going to happen, for sure.
“To get seven (championships), to have the run of 17 years together at a high level, executing, was something for the record books, for sure.”
Now, they’ll look to add one final strong run at Homestead to close this chapter.
“It’s been an awesome ride,” Knaus said.