Editor's Note: As part of the 40th anniversary of Hendrick Motorsports, we will look back at various milestones, moments and turning points in the company’s history throughout the year. The kickoff to this series covers a famous offseason meeting between Chad Knaus, Jimmie Johnson and Rick Hendrick, better known as the "milk and cookies" meeting.
CONCORD, N.C. – Before the first of Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus' record-tying seven NASCAR Cup Series championships at Hendrick Motorsports, the NASCAR Hall of Fame duo nearly split up.
You read that correctly. After the 2005 season, frustration was high for both the driver and crew chief. Johnson was the winningest driver (18) in the four years since entering the Cup Series but had no championships to show for it. Knaus had two championships as a tire changer on the No. 24 team of driver Jeff Gordon in 1995 and 1997 but had yet to climb that mountain as a crew chief.
"'04 we lost the championship to Kurt Busch by about two spots on the track," Johnson recalled during a media availability following the Class of 2024 NASCAR Hall of Fame induction, which included himself, Knaus and Donnie Allison. "'05 we were in the running for the championship again, racing Tony Stewart for the championship. We had an issue with the right-rear tire and crashed. Tony had a pretty poor night for his standards and it left us in this headspace of like, we had a shot at it. In our eyes, we had two opportunities slip away and you just never know how many looks you are going to get at a championship.
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"That frustration of being so close was really the foundation of the frustration and anger. This was the week after Homestead (-Miami Speedway). We were just angry and mad and both of us had spoken to Rick (Hendrick) and acted like a kid. That led Rick to the idea for that meeting and he called us in."
With the on-track success Johnson and Knaus had achieved in such a short time, Hendrick was hesitant to break them up and thought there was a way to work through it. He thought if they sat down with each other, maybe they would see that the grass wouldn’t necessarily be greener away from the other.
"Sometimes brothers, guys who are close, seem to have most friction," Hendrick told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio last week. "I brought them in and I said, 'It’s amazing that you’ve had the success you’ve had but now we are at a point where we are talking about Chad (Knaus), you having another driver. Jimmie (Johnson), having another crew chief.' And I said, 'When you think about it, you don’t know what you are going to get when we shuffle the deck. If we are going to act like kids … I had this gallon of milk and I put it on the table, here’s some milk and cookies. Why don’t we have some milk and cookies, sit on the floor and have a timeout?'
"They started laughing. I got up, started to walk out and said, 'Why don’t you guys talk about? Let’s talk through everything. What you don’t like and what you like. Let’s see if we can’t fix this.'"
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Johnson remembered how the team owner was adamant that he and Knaus eat the cookies, drink the milk and break the ice on the tension that had grown between the two of them. The meeting was career-changing for both men.
"Rick is pushing us to get into the experience and gives us both a chance to air what is on our minds," Johnson said. "We honestly got into a real conversation in many ways. We left that meeting and changed our course in how we worked. We went in a different direction.
"'06 takes place. We come out of the gate and win the DAYTONA 500. (We) Win our first championship and then the next championship. And on and on and on. There was a lot of weight in that meeting that we had."
For Knaus, the meeting and discussion served as an opportunity to reexamine how the No. 48 team was structured and where things could change. He later acknowledged that he was terrified of losing the 48 team and scared "if I didn’t perform that the 48 team would go to somebody else and it wouldn’t be mine."
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"We had such a steep trajectory and I thought that we should have won the championship by then," Knaus said. "We had a very good opportunity to win the championship in 2002 -- our very first year. When I sat in that meeting, I’ll be frank. I walked out of that meeting and I remember vividly I was embarrassed. I was embarrassed at the fact that Mr. Hendrick had to sit us down – two grown men with the opportunity of a lifetime and we were sitting there just letting it go away. I’m going to take the advice of the man who has mentored us and given us an opportunity to change the structure of the 48 team.
"We worked diligently that whole offseason (between the 2005 and 2006 seasons). We worked on giving the engineers more skin in the game, we worked on putting more emphasis on the engineers, on the car chief Ron Malec and giving everybody a little bit more tangible interest in the team as opposed to me doing it all. I was building the shocks, I was setting up the cars and I was putting the bodies on the cars. I was doing it all prior to that and we had a tremendous amount of success but it was very selfish. I was embarrassed after I sat there with Mr. Hendrick. I came out and I vowed that I was going to do it differently. Trust me, I made a lot of mistakes after that but that did set the foundation of where we were going to be in the future."
Even today, Johnson felt that Knaus was being too tough on himself.
"It’s interesting that you think you were selfish because from my standpoint I thought you were overworked and ultimately, I guess it was a combination of both," Johnson said to Knaus during the availability. "He had the shortest fuse. He was so overworked. He was covering so much territory and then he got comfortable delegating to different folks and empowering more people. I think it gave him a lighter bandwidth to really run and operate the team on a different level and the championships just started coming."
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What followed was something unprecedented that will be extremely hard for anyone to replicate. Five consecutive championships from 2006 to 2010 and 35 victories during those five years for the No. 48 team. The Johnson-Knaus duo would add titles in 2013 and 2016 to join the combo of Richard Petty and Dale Inman as the only driver-crew chief pairings with seven championships in Cup Series history.
Feats that were only made possible by clearing the air over some milk and cookies.