Ryan: For Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus, split is perfect timing again
Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus have been so good doing everything else together in racing, it’s no surprise they’re even good at splitting up.
They’ve always had a knack for timing, and this is the opportune moment for the conscious uncoupling of the crew chief-driver combination that redefined the bar for excellence in NASCAR’s premier series … and which now seems to have run its course.
The signs are exigent:
--Knaus and Johnson have made a first-round exit from the playoffs for the second time in four seasons.
--Since last year, they’ve been supplanted as Hendrick Motorsports’ lead team by the No. 9 of Alan Gustafson-Chase Elliott (who have won two of the past nine races while Johnson remains mired in a career-long 53-race winless streak).
--And the No. 48 Chevrolet whose continuity has been synonymous with Johnson and Knaus since 2002 will bear a fresh paint scheme and sponsor in 2019.
It’s the right time for a clean break and new chapter, but only after a well-deserved epilogue (that still could include one final trip to victory lane, particularly given the speed of their cars lately).
The most successful duo in NASCAR history won’t win a record eighth championship together, but they will give the world a six-race farewell tour to appreciate their greatness, along with the yin and yang possessed by any legendary pairing.
This is NASCAR’s version of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady leaving the building, and the parallels go beyond just the coinciding dynasties built on the field (five Super Bowl wins in 17 seasons from ’01-17 for the Patriots) vs. on the track (seven Cup championships in 17 seasons from ’02-18 for the No. 48).
With his drill sergeant demeanor and obsessively tactical preparations, Knaus has every bit the field general presence of Belichick (along with an exacting precision under fire that team owner Rick Hendrick once said would have made Knaus into “a damn fine Navy SEAL”).
He is the crew chief who had the gumption to fire his underperforming pit crew during a 2010 playoff race … and then win a fifth consecutive championship two weeks later with a new outfit.
And just like Brady, the suave and debonair quarterback who is cool facing pressure while always pleasantly agreeable with a wide smile, Johnson comes off as the calming driving force who rarely makes mistakes while turning blazing laps with the steadiness of a metronome.
He is the driver who took a catnap in his cockpit during a red flag at Homestead-Miami Speedway just before he smoothly executed the restart of his life to win the 2016 finale and his seventh championship.
There is hardly any overlap in their relationship roles, and their longtime understanding of that is why it has worked so well for so long.
Knaus has been the leader who governs with a gruff and unquestioned brilliance, and Johnson has been the superstar who subjugates himself for the greater good.
“It’s not something we or anyone at Hendrick when they paired us together saw, but it’s one of the things we’ve learned about our relationship,” Johnson said in a 2014 interview. “Chad and I made this decision early on, and I told him right away, ‘Man, I’ve always been good at listening and adapting. We need one guy at the helm. I’ll put my trust in you, and I’ll just take direction.’ So that’s been our philosophy.
“I’ve always been in that position of looking up to someone and being mentored by someone. That’s really been key. With Chad’s personality, if he had a strong-minded and very opinionated (driver) that was similar to his, I think it would be pretty volatile.”
Yet there still has been turbulence.
After their run of five consecutive championships, 2011 was a season on the brink for Johnson and Knaus, who openly bickered like an old married couple on the team’s radio. Those signs of public friction had prompted questions before about their working partnership’s expiration date.
After all, we know they infamously had considered a divorce since before they ever won a title.
An argument during the 2005 season finale – when Knaus kept his car on track until a crash despite Johnson’s insistence there was a tire going flat that would cause the wreck -- led to Hendrick brokering a peace with the “milk and cookies” meeting (the theme was to highlight their juvenilia) that buried the hatchet and began the record title run.
That historic march was built on pitch-perfect chemistry between a laid-back Californian and a brusque Midwesterner who always seemed to make every right move together.
Their final move to separate is no different.
It still somehow just feels right -- like virtually everything else they did before it.
That’s the legacy of Jimmie and Chad.