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NASCAR Cup Series

Byron’s DAYTONA 500 Pole Draws Parallels to Johnson and Knaus

Seventeen years ago this month, a pair of the most formidable sports dynasties of this century began with two of the most successful athlete and coach pairings of all-time.

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick paired for their first full-time season together in 2001 with the New England Patriots, then going on to win its first Super Bowl on Feb. 3, 2002.

One week later, Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus began their tenure together by claiming the 2002 DAYTONA 500 pole in Johnson’s fourth career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start.

Both feats came as upsets in their individual sports and also marked the start of two historic runs.

Each duo has since gone onto win a record number of championships and earn their places among the best of all-time.

Seventeen years later to the exact dates, Brady and Belichick claimed their sixth championship and one week later, Knaus again led the DAYTONA 500 pole-winning team.

However, this time it was with another young racer as Knaus begins his first season with William Byron after moving on from the seven-time championship-winning No. 48 team with Johnson.

Knaus began his career with Johnson by claiming the top starting spot in the “Great American Race” and now Byron has followed suit with Knaus calling the shots.

While one pole at a superspeedway doesn’t indicate much, reflecting on the significance of the achievement in Johnson and Knaus’ careers opens the possibilities for Byron to replicate that success.

Byron entered his rookie year in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series last season as one of the most promising talents to emerge out of the developmental ranks in years. He dominated during his time in the NASCAR Xfinity and Gander Outdoors Truck Series, winning a combined 11 races in two seasons and taking the 2017 Xfinity Series championship.

Prospects for the 21-year-old were high entering the premiere level but tougher competition and a steeper learning curve tempered expectations.

While the Hendrick Motorsports driver didn’t dominate in his first year as he had in the other two series, he showed signs of strength and won rookie of the year honors.

Now he enters his sophomore year with more experience, both behind the wheel and on the pit box. Knaus is arguably the most talented crew chief in NASCAR history and his pairing with a rising star has laid the groundwork to launch the next dynasty.

Even if the No. 24 team had not posted the fastest lap Sunday at Daytona International Speedway, the ingredients for this duo to be successful still exist.

As Byron continues to grow comfortable behind the wheel of a NASCAR Cup Series car, the talent he showed in his rise to the top level will likely emerge. Coupled with the wealth of knowledge Knaus brings to the table could allow them to put up impressive numbers. 

No one could predict what Johnson and Knaus would accomplish after winning the DAYTONA 500 pole 17 years ago. It’s unknown what Knaus and Byron will do together. However, knowing Byron’s talent and the seven-time championship-winning crew chief’s capabilities means this pole could also be reflected back on as having begun a new dynasty.

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Hendrick Motorsports Shifts Crew Chiefs Around

The dream team of Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson will not be together in 2019 as Hendrick Motorsports will be splitting them up.

“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.”

Johnson and Knaus are in the midst of their 17th season working together, making them the longest-running crew chief-driver combination in the garage. The pair won a record-tying seven Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championships together.

“It’s no secret that Chad and Jimmie have experienced their ups and downs over the years,” Hendrick said. “They’re fierce competitors, great friends and have immense respect for one another. They also fight like brothers. All three of us agree it’s finally time for new challenges and that a change will benefit them and the organization.”

Johnson will instead will be led by Kevin Meendering, who has currently crew chiefing for Elliott Sadler in the NASCAR XFINITY Series at JR Motorsports. In three seasons together, Meendering has led Sadler to three wins, 38 top-five’s, and 73 top-10’s. Meendering is not new to Hendrick Motorsports, having spent 16 years there beginning with a high-school internship in the chassis department.

“Over the last couple of years, he’s been one of the most sought-after talents in the garage,” Hendrick said of Meendering. “Kevin is an impressive person who came up in our organization and will hit the ground running on day one. We already know how well he works with our people and that he’s a respected, forward-thinking crew chief. Having worked with a veteran driver like Elliott Sadler for three years is extremely valuable experience. He’s the right fit for Jimmie at the right time. With an established No. 48 team behind them, I believe they will perform at a winning level next season and chase that eighth championship.”

Knaus, meanwhile, will be partnered with William Byron for his sophomore campaign in the No. 24 Chevrolet. Knaus has a history with the No. 24, as he was part of the original Rainbow Warriors team from 1993 to 1998 under the direction of Ray Evernham. 

“You can’t quantify how much Chad’s leadership and championship experience will benefit William, who is a special talent,” Hendrick said. “The two of them are a great match, and I’m excited to see what they can do together. Chad has the Rainbow Warriors pedigree and truly appreciates the history of the No. 24. I’ve asked him to build another winner and given him the green light to put his stamp on the team and do it his way.”

Byron’s current crew chief Darian Grubb will be promoted to technical director, an executive leadership role supporting Hendrick Motorsports’ engineering and vehicle development resources.  

“Darian has established himself as a respected leader in our company, and we’ve seen him thrive in an executive role,” Hendrick said. “We’ve identified opportunities for improvement, and we know having him step up to technical director will help move us forward in those areas. He’s a champion who brings a wealth of knowledge that will continue to benefit us.”

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Knaus-Johnson Brotherhood Bond Continues to Pay Off

In racing while equipment matters, it’s also been said multiple times the people are the biggest piece of the puzzle, going all the way back to Rick Hendrick in 2004 saying, “Teamwork is common people doing uncommon things.”

His words remain the truth as the relationship built between Chad Knaus, and Jimmie Johnson has helped them create history in the form of seven Sprint Cup Series Championships.

While some drivers can say they’ve won multiple championships, Johnson is one of a few who can say he has won all of his with one man.

“It’s something I take a lot of pride in,” Johnson said. “Loyalty is a huge thing with me. To have — we’ve had our bumps in the road, but he’s a brother, and I’m so proud of him and so thankful that whatever drew us to one another and created this opportunity for us to start the 48 team and work together happened.

“It’s amazing. I would not be here today as a seven-time champion without Chad Knaus. He deserves so much praise and so much credit for my success, for this team’s success, for the success of Hendrick Motorsports and where it is and what’s going on with it right now. Over the last 15 years, my gosh, it’s crazy to say that. I guess I’m getting old. But he’s something special.”

At times it didn’t appear as though the relationship would work out between the pair. There was a time when they were feuding back and forth so badly that Rick Hendrick sat them down in his office, with a plate of Mickey Mouse cookies each and told them if they were going to act like kids, he’d treat them like children. There were discussions of breaking them up then; however, they were able to settle their differences and begin their string of success, which now includes seven championships and 80 race wins

The relationships work due to one reason – respect. Johnson continually believes in every single adjustment Knaus makes to the racecar, while Knaus believes his driver can do anything he needs to.

“He is probably the most underrated champion in this sport, to be honest with you,” Knaus said. “He is a fantastic, fantastic individual, an amazing race car driver. Most people in the situation we were just in would crumble, and he didn’t even waver. He knew what he needed to do. He knew what the demands were on him at that point in time, and he made it happen.”

Their road to the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway, whether the season or race itself, showcased the confidence both ways. Despite not being one of the top teams during the regular season, they were able to hit their stride in the Chase, producing results – including a pair of wins – and advance themselves to the final round at Homestead.

“I think the strength of this team is being able to look adversity in the eye and just deal with it,” Knaus said. “If you look at us throughout the course of our career, we’ve had crashes, we’ve had engine failures. We’ve had poor qualifying efforts. We’ve had things happen throughout the course of the race that we’ve been able to come back and win through. This team is solid from the standpoint that — just we might get wavered, we might get shaken, we might get knocked back on our heels, but then we bounce back, and we start jabbing right back, and that’s the way that we’ve rolled, and we’re going to continue to work that way until we’re done.”

The race at Homestead once again showed their strength as Johnson started at the rear of the field due to a pre-race technical issue. Once the green flag waved, though, he was quick off the bat as he made his way to the front and battled inside the top-five with the leaders. He’d fall back mid-race between pit stop issues and the handling slightly being off; however, a caution at Lap 172 for debris worked in their favor as Knaus threw a whole list of adjustments at the No. 48 Lowes Chevrolet. While they restarted in 12th as the last car on the lead lap, he was able to make up ground and came off pit road with 12 laps to go in fifth. Through escaping a wreck amongst the leaders and a pair of good restarts, Johnson was able to continue to make up ground, taking the lead on the overtime attempt and not looking back as he led the final remaining laps en route to the win, and his seventh championship.

While they’ve made history on the track, the pair has also forged a relationship off the track, one which has been beneficial for Knaus personally.

“Jimmie has taught me more about life than life itself has taught me,” Knaus said. “He’s taught me about family. He’s taught me about relationships. He’s taught me about being a champion. You know, when we started this thing, all I was just a racer guy, and he was a cool California kid, and we kind of grew up together. To be in this situation to where we know he’s got a handful of years left, whatever they may be, and for Jimmie and Mr. Hendrick to want me to stick with the 48 car and be at the helm of this ship, man, it’s flattering. It really is flattering, because let’s be honest, I’m getting older just like everybody else is. None of us is as young as we once were, and I look forward to the future with these guys.”

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

 

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Editorial

Weaver: Capitalizing on Opportunities Key to Johnson, Knaus Success

Simply put, this is what they do.

In their decade of dominance in NASCAR, no race has ever truly felt out of reach for Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus and the No. 48 Sprint Cup team. Winning the SpongeBob Squarepants 400 on Saturday night at Kansas Speedway was yet another reminder that this is the best team in the recent history of the sport. Winning this race really feel remarkable because based purely on loop data, Johnson and his Chevrolet just didn’t seem to have the mechanical muscle needed to chase down the likes of Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr.

But a caution with 12 laps to go and the leaders needing a splash of fuel changed everything.

Johnson assumed the lead when Harvick and Truex pitted for fuel and tires, then held off a hard-charging Harvick (and his fresher tires) to win his third race of the season and 73rd of his Hall of Fame career. And despite what his critics may say, it’s not the good luck by itself that makes the No. 48 team so statistically remarkable.

Instead, it’s how they are able to capitalize on opportunities that separates them from the usual glut of contenders.

With precious few exceptions, Johnson and company just don’t make mistakes, especially when they are provided an opportunity to exceed their ceilings on a given week. And on the rare occasion they do, Knaus channels his inner Bill Parcells and makes immediate changes, much like he did during the 2010 playoffs at Texas Motor Speedway.

In short, Johnson winning at Kansas on Saturday was a snapshot of everything that has established the No. 48 team as a modern day dynasty. They are the ultimate opportunists and if you give them the slightest opportunity to get back into a race, they are going to take it and make the most of it.

Over the course of a 36-race season, virtually every team will be given opportunities similar to the one Johnson enjoyed early on Sunday morning.

The difference is that Johnson automatically converts and maximizes them into the best finish possible and that’s why he has won six championships and is on the verge of joining the rarified air of Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty.

And as if you needed another reminder of Johnson’s greatness, this was his 200th career top-5 and 300th career top-10 — also amongst the best in the Modern Era of the sport. Lofty stats like those aren’t fully the result of engineering.

It’s also the result of good decision-making, hard-driving and the ability to capitalize on every chance tossed your way.

Johnson is often compared to Earnhardt, Petty, Jeff Gordon and Cale Yarborough and moments like Kansas justify each one of them.

EMAIL MATT AT matt.weaver@popularspeed.com

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NASCAR Cup Series

Are Sprint Cup Teams Illegally Drilling Holes in Their Tires?

MARTINSVILLE, Va. — The hottest rumor in the Sprint Cup Series garage appears to have at least a little bit of merit.

In response to allegations of tire tampering, NASCAR reminded crew chiefs during a Friday morning safety meeting that any illegal modifications to their Goodyear tires would result in a stiff punishment.

The Sanctioning Body has taken select race used tires back to its Research and Development Center in Concord after the past two events at Phoenix and Fontana. The league reported no issues but they also sent the tires from Fontana to an independent party for additional testing and the results are still pending from that test.

Observers and participants were left scratching their heads when NASCAR started taking tires two weeks ago — something they rarely choose to do. Series officials claimed they were doing normal “audits” but it seems like there is more to the story.

Late last year, rumors arose that teams were drilling holes in their tires in the attempts to bleed air, relieve build up and increase grip during the course of a green flag run. Over the past two weeks, NASCAR officials have confiscated tires from Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman and Paul Menard.

Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Jeff Gordon doesn’t know if NASCAR is reacting to the rumors or simply doing their due diligence.

“There’s a lot of smoke around that, right?” Gustafson said. “There is a lot of talk, there is a lot of dialogue and there are a lot of rumors in the garage. So yeah, I think it’s obvious some people think there is something going on.

“Is NASCAR reacting to that or do they feel uncomfortable with what’s going on? I don’t know that answer, but it’s something that’s at the forefront of a lot of people’s minds.”

Chad Knaus, crew chief for Jimmie Johnson said he sent a text to Sprint Cup Series director Richard Buck that said “Hey man, can we poke holes in our tires? Is that OK?”

“He texted back, ‘Absolutely not,'” Knaus said. “That’s all I know.”

If teams are drilling homes in the tires, the reasons to do so, are to replicate bleeder valves used in short track and Late Model competition. The holes would essentially allow the tires to maintain a consistent air pressure during a run, since pressure increases over multiple laps.

It’s an outlawed practice in the modern NASCAR but one Gustafson said may be tough for the league to monitor.

“I think that’s the thing that’s going to be tough for NASCAR – if this is going on as rumored, it’s a very difficult thing to police,” he said. “And the way to police it may to just be allow it through a more conventional tool like a bleeder.”

EMAIL MATT AT matt.weaver@popularspeed.com

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NASCAR Cup Series

Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus: ‘Things are the Same as Ever’

By Matt Weaver (TALLADEGA, Ala.) — Despite sniping at each other over the radio on Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Jimmie Johnson says that his relationship with crew chief Chad Knaus remains consistent as ever.

The six-time and defending champions’ emotions boiled over during the race following a frustrating weekend where they struggled to find comfort with their Chevrolet as Johnson qualified 21st, hit the wall in practice and battled to a 17th-place finish under the scrutiny of potentially failing to advance in the Chase for the Championship.

Ultimately, Johnson dismissed the tension as merely a byproduct of their struggles.

“Frustration is high, for sure,” Johnson said. “Chad and I, in our relationship, have had these peaks and valleys. We’ve had times where there has been plenty of frustration on the radio. But who we are and what we are as a team and the way our relationship works and us moving forward — things are still as they have always been.

“It isn’t fun, and I’m sure people hear plenty of colorful things from drivers and crew chiefs during the course of a race. Last weekend there was plenty of color on our channel and it just comes with the territory. We’re not happy with where we’re at, and I don’t know why we would be.”

But Johnson and Knaus have a history of infighting, at least in the years prior to their prolific run of six championships in eight seasons.

It’s a story that has been enriched in legend at this point but team owner Rick Hendrick once had to sit the driver/engineer duo down over a plate of milk and cookies in the aftermath of their failed 2005 Sprint Cup championship bid.

The two had admittedly been bickering like children and the sophomoric snack setting was designed to either repair the relationship or signal the beginning of the end. Nine years later and Johnson and Knaus are still the symbol of excellence, even in a somewhat underwhelming 2014 season.

Johnson said that it was “unfortunate” that those conversations can be heard publicly but admitted that it was just part of the sport. Johnson most-likely has to win on Sunday in order to advance to the Eliminator Round of the Chase and that is the only thing on his mind entering the weekend.

“If we don’t win, it will be in our best interest to look at 2015 and what we need to do on all fronts for the ’15 season — including the rules package. Our vision will shift at that point and try to get a head start on the field and start where we need to be.”

He has won three times this season and boasts two career wins at Talladega. While banking on a win on a restrictor plate track is never a comforting proposition, Johnson says he is prepared to give it his best shot.

“Granted, it’s a tough one and a lofty goal,” Johnson said. “There are many other guys out there with the same goal, not only from a Chase situation but also trying to win a race this year. I’ve got a lot of work ahead for myself and this team this weekend, so we’re ready for the challenge. We’ll get out there to work and see what happens.”

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NASCAR Cup Series

Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus Riding Wave of Positive Momentum

By Matt Weaver (DOVER, Del.) For a team that many in the sport started to question a month ago, Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus and the No. 48 team are sitting pretty following back-to-back victories at Charlotte and Dover.

It wasn’t that likely but prior to Johnson’s breakthrough victory in the Coca-Cola 600, a notion could be entertained that Johnson could miss the Chase for the Championship. Prior to his victory, nine others had won a race. And while it was unlikely that the 16 threshold would be met without Johnson, the chatter had begun.

But a month and two victories later, Johnson and Knaus are all but guaranteed a spot in the new-look championship format and the duo are seemingly the most care-free unit in the garage. Knaus, particularly, has looked more jovial in the past few months and he agreed that there was something to that on Sunday after the race.

“Quite honestly I’m at the best point in my life,” Knaus said after the race. “I’ve been very fortunate to have been in this sport for a long time. I’ve seen it grow and change and it’s been a weird circuitous route to get to where we are now, but quite honestly, I’ve never been happier in my life with my personal life, my performance at the racetrack, what we’ve got going on, and Jimmie has helped a lot with that.

“So has Mr. Hendrick as far as making me understand that I’ve got to take time away from the facility and understand that there’s life outside of motorsports.”

A large part of that has been his girlfriend, Brooke. But age and perspective has seemingly taught him that there is more to life than the office.

“I’ve tried for a long time to deny that fact but I’m really, really enjoying it all the way around,” Knaus said. “It’s fun. We’re going back to Charlotte tonight and we’re heading up to Loudon tomorrow evening, and then we go race Pocono and go we go back home from Pocono and then we head out to Chicago to tire test the week after that. It’s busy as ever, but we’re in a good spot right now. Everything is great.”

The good vibes have extended to the driver too as Johnson is feeling confident about the summer stretch that includes many of his best tracks, like Pocono, Michigan and Indianapolis. The positive energy has the dynamic duo looking towards chasing the historic seventh championship.

“We can get on a roll,” Johnson said. “We’ve got some good tracks ahead for us. I think tracks really build momentum for teams and drivers — and going to Charlotte is a great track — here is a great track for us, Pocono next weekend is Chad’s favorite racetrack, and I think you can look ahead at the summer months and see who historically runs well at different tracks and kind of pick your favorites.

“It certainly has been that way for us. The tracks we’ve been bad at, we’ve gone there and been embarrassed by our performance, and then the tracks that are good to us still have been good to us.”

The No. 48 is back — not that they were ever really gone.

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Editorial NASCAR Cup Series

Johnson and Knaus “The Dynamic Duo”

In the world of superhero animation you have a number of dynamic duos, with the most famous of them all being Batman and Robin; otherwise, known as the “Caped Crusaders.”

Switching gears to the world of NASCAR, the Cup series has definitely had its share of winning dynamic duos to include championship pairings such as: Richard Petty/Dale Inman, Dale Earnhardt/Kirk Shelmerdine and Jeff Gordon/Ray Everham – just to name a few.

Over a consecutive five-year span, from 2006  to 2010, there was one team who performed in a dominating, historic fashion. They battled hard and repeatedly took home the coveted trophy, after the checkered flag waved, at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

I am sure that without me saying another word you know exactly which driver and crew chief combination I’ve been alluding to because they are one of the most talked about teams in and out of the garage area. Without a doubt, they are both famous and infamous for a number of reasons – historic and controversial.

Five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and Crew Chief Chad Knaus have their share of folks who are diehard fans and loyal supporters. Of course, on the flip side of the coin, there are those who would rather see the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet team performing in subpar fashion every week.

Despite all of that, there is no denying that this driver and crew chief combination has proven to be a force to be reckoned with on the track. Granted, the team was dethroned for the past two years with three-time champion Tony Stewart and last year’s champion Brad Keselowski taking home the prized trophy.

However, in 2013, it seems as if the Johnson/Knaus combination have ignited a seemingly low burning flame. Simply put – these guys are on fire!

With approximately 13 years of Cup competition under his belt, Jimmie Johnson has grown to become a phenomenal talent. Statistics that include 64 wins in 41

Have they had some challenges and questionable moments? Yes. Have they always had a perfect race? No.8 races, 174 top 5s, 261 top 10s, 30 poles along with 14,876 laps led and five championships – need I say more? Crew Chief Chad Knaus has been the man to call audibles from the pit box for him over the past 12 years.

One thing that remains certain about this combo is the fact that they are fighters and possess that “eye of the tiger.” It has been proven by their multiple consecutive championships, record-breaking moments and sustaining partnership over the years.

In 2013, it looks like this has been shaping up to be another championship year. Will they make it a six-peat? The absolute possibilities are there for that to become reality. Fast, dominating cars – check. Wins, four – check. Will this Hendrick Motorsports powerhouse capture their sixth championship? Only time will tell because there is still a lot of racing left to do this season.

As always, the determining factors will come down to the how things go in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. One thing that can’t be denied or argued is that Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus are a formidable match and most definitely can be deemed the present “Dynamic Duo.”

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