Wheels of Change Continue to Grind at Hendrick

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, October 2 2020

Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and long-time crew chief Chad Knaus are part of big changes at Hendrick Motorsports. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Rusty Jarrett)

By Deb Williams | Senior Writer

When the checkered flag waves at Phoenix in early November it will signal not only the conclusion to the pandemic stricken season, but the end of an era at Hendrick Motorsports as well.

Seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson will depart for a part-time open-wheel schedule in the NTT IndyCar Series with Chip Ganassi Racing while Chad Knaus, his crew chief for all seven titles, will step down from the pit box to become Hendrick’s vice president for competition. Granted, the two haven’t been on the same team since 2018, but the impact they exerted on Hendrick Motorsports and on each other never waned.

“He definitely taught me to enjoy life a little bit,” Knaus said about Johnson. “He taught me what it means to feel friendship and love and to care for somebody, which is something that I needed, for sure. He taught me what it’s like to want to have a family and to build a good family and how to be a good father. 

“One thing I probably taught him it’s that you need leadership. You need structure. You need guidance. And, you need somebody to keep the heat on you.” 

While in the crew chief role, Knaus directed his teams to 82 victories and no doubt he will one day be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Only one crew chief possesses more NASCAR Cup championships than Knaus. NASCAR Hall of Fame member Dale Inman owns eight. However, the 49-year-old Knaus knew it was now time for him to relinquish the crew chief role and move on to something else.

“I have a lot to do that I want to do with my family,” said Knaus, who has been traveling full time since about age 16. “I’m really excited about my new little girl…and my son is awesome. I don’t want to miss the opportunity to watch these two grow up and be that positive influence on their lives.”

Chad Knaus has sat on the pit box of William Byron after parting with Jimmie Johnson. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Andrew Coppley)

Knaus has grown up and matured at Hendrick Motorsports, first under crew chief Ray Evernham’s tutelage and then team owner Rick Hendrick and executive Jeff Andrews. 

When Knaus first arrived at Hendrick Motorsports it wasn’t the sprawling campus that exists today. It consisted of about four buildings and Knaus was charged with sweeping the floor in the body shop and washing Evernham’s car every week in the driveway. During his tenure at Hendrick Motorsports, Knaus has put bodies on the cars, been a mechanic, set up cars, built shocks and changed tires on a pit crew. He’s also driven from Charlotte to Michigan to pick up fellow team members at the airport because the Hendrick plane at that time wasn’t big enough to transport everyone. 

“There was a time that crew chiefs didn’t have that good of a lifestyle,” Knaus said. “We were constantly filthy and never slept and slept at the shop. I can remember working in Alabama with Philipe Lopez and Stanley Smith and I was literally sleeping on this steel table in the middle of the garage because I was too tired to drive home to get up to come to work the next day because we were there so late.” 

When Evernham left Hendrick in late 1999 to form his own Cup operation, Knaus followed Evernham. However, his departure was short-lived as he soon returned to Hendrick to prepare for 2002, his first season as Johnson’s crew chief. After the famous milk-and-cookie meeting Hendrick called to smooth the duo’s rocky start, they became invincible in 16 of the 21st century’s first 18 years. Together they totaled 81 victories and five consecutive championships. Prior to their unprecedented title run NASCAR Hall of Fame member Cale Yarborough owned the most consecutive NASCAR Cup championships with three. However, Knaus admitted he “really, really wanted” to get a victory as the crew chief of the No. 24 entry. That occurred in August when William Byron won the regular season finale at Daytona. 

“It was something I dreamed about since I was a very young man, so, to be able to get that this year definitely helped tremendously (with my transition into this position),” Knaus said.

Byron’s victory moved him into this year’s playoffs, making Knaus the only crew chief to participate in every post-season since the format was instituted in 2004. 

Knaus steps into his management role after more than three decades with Hendrick Motorsports and he’s proud of his longevity with the organization.

“I like that I’ve been able to earn my stripes and scout badges the way that you’re supposed to do it,” Knaus said. “I hope that people respect that and realize, quite honestly, that they could do the exact same thing.”

Knaus will report to Andrews, another long-time Hendrick Motorsports employee who’s being promoted to executive vice president and general manager. It’s a move that’s been discussed for quite some time.

“We started talking about this years ago,” Knaus said. “I’m going to go back two previous contracts with the No. 48 car. Not necessarily doing it at that point, but making sure we realized where I wanted to be in the future. Jeff Gordon and I have talked about it for probably three years, maybe four, in that area. It’s all about timing and right now is just the right time.”

In Knaus’ new role, the Rockford, Ill., native will touch everyone at Hendrick, not just those affiliated with a single team. His competitiveness will no doubt be infectious in the organization. He admitted he has “probably been tempered quite a lot” over the years. Initially, he was completely engrained in every facet of everything, took responsibility for everything and didn’t relinquish control until he felt “extremely comfortable” with someone. Now, he’s different.

“There are so many folks here that are so significantly smarter than I am. It’s foolish for me to think that I can help do a lot of the things that need to be done,” Knaus said.

It’s that maturity that has led him to his new position where he can now direct and teach a new generation; develop “the environment of passion.”

“A passion for racing, a passion for the sport and performance,” Knaus said. 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, October 2 2020
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