Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus have just six races left as a driver-crew chief pairing.
Hendrick Motorsports announced Wednesday that Johnson would have a new crew chief in 2019 as Knaus would move to the No. 24 car of William Byron. Johnson and Knaus have been together since Johnson entered the Cup Series full-time in 2002 and have won seven championships and 83 races together.
The time since that seventh title, however, has been rough. Johnson won the final race of the season in 2016 to earn a record-tying seventh title. In the 66 races after, Johnson has won three races and finished in the top 10 just 21 times. He hasn’t won since visiting victory lane at Dover in June of 2017.
“The last two years, although we did win three races last year, the year ended, it was difficult,” Johnson said. “This year has been tough as you guys all know and have lived with us. We’re fierce competitors, we both want to win races, we both want to win championships and we acknowledge the fact that we’ve had a hell of a run.”
“It’s been a long, amazing run of seventeen years. Sometimes, change brings new opportunity. Change brings excitement, a new breath of fresh air, a spark. Whatever it might be, that opportunity is now here for us. We’ve been highly committed to each other, this team and our relationship, but it’s just to the point where we feel like change is the next step and potentially the next step for our next level of greatness as individuals. It just feels like it’s time.”
Johnson was eliminated from the playoffs on Sep. 30 at Charlotte when he spun while trying pass Martin Truex Jr. for the win. That incident played no role in Wednesday’s announcement in case you were wondering.
“That was albeit heartbreaking — that was not part of it,” Knaus said. “I wanted to win that race just as bad as he did. I beat myself up more than I probably ever blamed Jimmie for what happened there. I think I mentioned it, I could have probably come on the radio and said one or two things and he probably would have maybe thought and checked up a little bit, but my last words to him was ‘go get his ass.’”
Knaus agreed that parting ways after the 2018 season was the “right time” and it was clear Thursday the split isn’t acrimonious. Knaus signed a contract extension with Hendrick Motorsports over the summer that appeared to take him through 2020 as Johnson’s crew chief. He’ll now spend at least the first of those remaining two years with Byron instead of Johnson.
“Let’s be frank, whoever thought that this would have gone 17 years? My point is this, instead of reflecting on what is the unknown, reflect a little bit on what we accomplished,” Knaus said. “And that is what I have really focused on. We have done amazing things over the course of our career. It should not have stemmed the span that it did. That is very, very comforting to me, personally. You can try to twist it all you want and do that stuff, but that is not what it is about. There are great opportunities for both of us. Jimmie has still got years left in him to drive and I have still got a couple of years left in me to be a crew chief. We are going to go and do that. It wasn’t as tumultuous as what you may think. Everything is about timing. This is the right time.”
The six races the two have together as a driver and crew chief will be in pursuit of a streak Johnson has carried through his whole career. He’s never had a winless season in the Cup Series. 2018 will be his first if he doesn’t win before the end of the year.
“I want to keep that streak alive,” Johnson said. “I know it’s in us. I guess you do hang on to some stats that float around there although I don’t spend a lot of time looking at them, I take pride in the fact that we have made every playoff that NASCAR has had so far. To have 16 winning seasons, I sure as hell want 17 winning seasons.”
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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