John­son, Knaus be­gin farewell tour

Driver, crew chief start fi­nal six-week run at Tal­ladega

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE -

TAL­LADEGA, Ala. — Times were al­ready chang­ing long be­fore Jim­mie John­son strolled through a Las Ve­gas casino un­no­ticed, full fire­suit and all. It was the start of NASCAR’s play­offs and the sev­en­time cham­pion, wear­ing a flame-re­tar­dant bill­board, was sur­prised that he failed to garner even a quizzi­cal stare.

John­son had al­ready lost Lowe’s, the only spon­sor he’s had at NASCAR’s top level. Now he was just an­other face in the crowd even though the start of the play­offs were just days away and the most dec­o­rated driver of his gen­er­a­tion was there to pro­mote.

How ut­terly off-kil­ter for John­son. But los­ing Lowe’s, floun­der­ing in a long los­ing streak dur­ing a dis­mal time at Hen­drick Mo­tor­sports, go­ing un­no­ticed in a ho­tel lobby, none of that com­pared to what was still to come in this bizarre sea­son for “Seven Time.” The big­gest stun­ner came this week when team owner Rick Hen­drick, af­ter 17 years of babysit­ting the del­i­cate re­la­tion­ship be­tween John­son and crew chief Chad Knaus, pulled the plug on the long­est pair­ing in NASCAR.

Knaus built the No. 48 team around John­son from scratch. He was atop the pit box for the record-ty­ing seven ti­tles and 81 of John­son’s 83 ca­reer Cup vic­to­ries. The two have been to­gether since bach­e­lor­hood, through mar­riage and now chil­dren for both. They were fu­eled by the chase for eight, the elu­sive num­ber nei­ther The King of The In­tim­ida­tor could reach.

Their farewell tour be­gins to­day at Tal­ladega Su­per­speed­way, and when they part, John­son still will be tied with Richard Petty and Dale Earn­hardt Sr. with seven ti­tles. Knaus will be tied with crew chief Dale In­man.

If No. 8 ever comes, it will come for one of them, not both.

Knaus is mov­ing to the No. 24 team, where he started at Hen­drick Mo­tor­sports so many years ago build­ing cars for a new guy named Jeff Gor­don, to crew chief an­other fresh-faced young tal­ent in Wil­liam By­ron. Rick Hen­drick went to his farm sys­tem to pair John­son with Kevin Meen­der­ing, one of those life­long Hen­drick guys who started with the com­pany as a high school part-timer and learned how to be a crew chief. It is the end of an era, in­deed. “We’ve lasted longer than the av­er­age length of a mar­riage in the United States. We’ve worked re­ally hard,” Knaus said.

So hard they nearly de­stroyed the re­la­tion­ship on more than one oc­ca­sion. John­son and Knaus aren’t wired the same but have al­ways chased win­ning. The path each took wasn’t al­ways or­derly and Knaus, so rigid, in­tense and in­flex­i­ble, some­times clashed with John­son’s easy­go­ing de­meanor. The louder Knaus yelled, the qui­eter John­son be­came.

Hen­drick threat­ened to break them up. Sat them down over milk and cook­ies be­cause they were act­ing like chil­dren, blam­ing each other and bick­er­ing over their in­abil­ity to win a cham­pi­onship. They agreed to work as hard on their re­la­tion­ship as they were work­ing on their goals, and it led to ti­tle af­ter ti­tle and a win­ning pace not seen in decades.

Only now they aren’t win­ning any­more, and for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons that John­son and Knaus can­not solely con­trol. Hen­drick Mo­tor­sports is in a mas­sive re­build, Chevro­let has lagged be­hind its com­peti­tors this year and John­son’s young team­mates don’t know what they don’t know so aren’t in po­si­tion to take charge of the march out of this mess.

That’s how John­son gets stuck in a 53-race los­ing streak headed into Sun­day. And at some point, Hen­drick has no choice but to step in and try some­thing new, any­thing new, even if it means split­ting the great­est com­bi­na­tion since Petty and In­man.

“It’s not like we’re try­ing to kill each other. That’s not where this is,” Knaus said. “It’s an op­por­tu­nity for growth for both of us. In or­der to be com­mit­ted in a teamor­i­ented en­vi­ron­ment for that long, there’s a lot of deep dig­ging that you have to get through.

“And we’ve done that, and we’ve put forth the ef­fort and it’s time right now to do some­thing dif­fer­ent. It re­ally is it’s the right time for the com­pany.”

So, six more races, that’s all th­ese two have got left to­gether, and they’d like to make it count. John­son tried to snap that los­ing streak two weeks ago on the roval at Char­lotte but his at­tempt at a last-lap pass of Martin Truex Jr. ended with both driv­ers spin­ning and John­son knocked out of the play­offs.

But any­thing goes th­ese fi­nal six weeks be­cause when it’s over, noth­ing will be the same. Knaus will be at the No. 24 try­ing to mold By­ron into the next John­son or Gor­don. John­son will have a new spon­sor­ship and new face lead­ing his team as Hen­drick gives Meen­der­ing a chance to be the next Knaus.

Un­til then, they have noth­ing to lose and every rea­son to try to snap that los­ing streak and cel­e­brate one last time in vic­tory lane to­gether.

“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,” John­son said. “It’s been a long, amaz­ing run of 17 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.”

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