CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — There were many times following Jimmie Johnson's 83 career NASCAR wins when, trophy in hand and post-race obligations complete, his pending celebration would be instantly soured by the man who guided him to victory lane.
Chad Knaus wanted to extract the most out of Johnson all the time, and even after a win, the crew chief could still find areas of improvement.
“There were many times when we were in the media center, collecting the trophy, and we leave there and as soon as the door was shut, Chad is like ‘Hey man, that second stint? What happened on that restart? What about this? We gotta tighten it up!’” Johnson told The Associated Press. “And I'd be like ”Give me until tomorrow, OK? We're leaving with the trophy. Tomorrow you can give me (crap), right now? Don't."
The push and pull between driver and crew chief worked for a record-tying seven Cup championships including an unprecedented five consecutive titles. Johnson drove the Knaus-built No. 48 Chevrolet to two Daytona 500 victories, four wins at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, six at Johnson's home track in California, seven at Texas, eight at Charlotte, nine at Martinsville and 11 at Dover.
They were an unstoppable duo and will fittingly be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame together on Friday night. Both are first ballot inductees and will be celebrated with Donnie Allison, an original member of the “Alabama Gang,” who is joining his brother, Bobby, in the Hall.
Allison, winner of 10 career Cup races, was voted in on the Pioneer ballot. Janet Guthrie, the first woman to race in both the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500, is being inducted as the Landmark Award winner for contributions to NASCAR.
Allison and Knaus last October spent time at Charlotte Motor Speedway reminiscing about their careers. Knaus is now the vice president of competition for Hendrick Motorsports, where he and Johnson teamed for 81 of Johnson's 83 victories; Knaus was suspended for two of Johnson's wins, including a Daytona 500 victory.
Although Knaus has mellowed in his new role — married with two young children — he denied himself much of a personal life at the height of the 48 team's success. One of the memories he shared sitting alongside Allison was a 2009 weekend of total domination by Johnson at Charlotte.
“One of the things that we always strove for was to be fastest in all the practice sessions, fastest in qualifying, and then to go win the race. That would be a perfect weekend,” Knaus said. "And we did it. I kept all those time sheets from that weekend, which was really cool. Just had the No. 48 on top of every single NASCAR print off sheet, which was really special.”
That's how Knaus was wired and it worked with Johnson, a laid-back Californian from a blue-collar family who scrapped his way to North Carolina and eventually a seat driving for Rick Hendrick in the Cup Series. Johnson landed the job by sitting down next to Jeff Gordon at a driver meeting and selling himself to the four-time champion, who convinced Hendrick to hire Johnson ahead of the 2002 season.
Hendrick paired him with Knaus, an original member of Gordon's “Rainbow Warrior” pit crew who had left the organization to pursue a crew chief job. When he returned, Hendrick tasked him with building a team around Johnson.
Knaus badly wanted to win and got Johnson to his first victory lane in their 13th race together.
“I know for sure there is no one who brought more out of me than Chad. The accountability. How he would push me. Of course we butted heads at times, but he believed in me and knew how to bring the best out of me,” Johnson said. “When I was close to getting something right and a lot of scenarios I was in, I'd be like, ”OK, that works.' And Chad would say ‘No. You can do better. I can see it. We’ve got to be perfect everywhere.'
“He spent a lot of time making sure you could go from good to great, and I think a lot of other experiences I had, I felt that good works and I could move on,” Johnson said. “Chad was really good at finding those final percentage points in all areas.”
The relationship was sometimes strained and Hendrick once sat them down over a plate of cookies and milk, scolding them for behaving like children while threatening to split the duo. It wasn't until 2019, after their first winless season together, that Hendrick made a change. Johnson worked with two more crew chiefs in his final two seasons of full-time NASCAR competition and semi-retired at the end of 2020 after three winless seasons.
Johnson then tried IndyCar for two years and even lived out his childhood dream in racing in the Indianapolis 500. He's now the co-owner of Legacy Motor Club, where he joined his drivers last year in three NASCAR races while also starring in the Knaus-led “Garage 56” project that took a Cup car to the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
This week, Johnson announced he'll race in the season-opening Daytona 500, as well as the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis and the season-finale at Phoenix. He anticipates running about nine races for Legacy, but has left June open on his calendar in hopes of a return to Le Mans.
Johnson, his wife and two daughters are currently living in London and fulfilling a longtime desire to give their children the experience of living abroad. The move came at a critical time for the family as they relocated shortly after Johnson's in-laws and nephew died in a double murder-suicide just weeks after his celebratory time at Le Mans.
The change of scenery has been cathartic for the entire family, and they spend a good deal of time with racers Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon when all are in England.
“We're as good as we can be. The holidays were tough and it's just an ongoing process of getting stronger. Good days, bad days, good weeks, bad weeks. Just still deeply grieving,” Johnson said.
His family was not with him when he was announced as a Hall of Fame inductee in August, and Johnson didn't indicate if they would be at Friday night's ceremony.
He spent the last few weeks reflecting on his career and the people who helped him tie Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt with seven Cup titles. His 83 career wins are tied with Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough for sixth all-time.
Johnson said he doesn't have the words to express his gratitude toward Hendrick, who gave him his big shot in NASCAR, and how fitting it is that he and Knaus will be inducted in the same class.
“We did this all together, so I am so happy we get to go in together,” Johnson said. “I think for he and I, it's really special. Maybe others think we should have been staggered. But for us and our Hendrick family, we get a chance to celebrate and have closure to my experience within the Hendrick family. We really see this as a very special opportunity.”
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