Jimmie Johnson has frequently said he never wanted to know whether he could win races with someone other than Chad Knaus as his crew chief.
He will find out in 2019.
And the results will be awesome.
It will be awesome to see what Johnson can do without Knaus. C’mon, everyone wants to see it. Was their success due to driver or crew chief?
It might be a little late to actually tell, but the move should show just how good Johnson ranks as a driver. It should show all those people who think he is simply a very good driver — and that Knaus did the heavy lifting — that Johnson actually, for real, owns incredible talent.
If Hendrick Motorsports had made this move in 2011, Johnson would have gotten to show in his prime what he could do without Knaus.
Johnson, 43, didn’t win five consecutive titles just because of Knaus. He probably doesn’t win seven championships without Knaus, but he certainly wins championships — yes, championships — if Hendrick never pairs Knaus and Johnson together.
Don’t take this as a knock on Knaus. He belongs on the Mount Rushmore of crew chiefs. He certainly got the most out of his driver and his crew. His competitiveness and knack to make the right change at the right time cannot be questioned. He might not get William Byron to a championship level in two years, but he will play a significant role in elevating Byron’s game.
Byron and Johnson, though, came up through different paths, and Johnson’s résumé of off-road racing, ASA Racing and some Busch Series racing prepared him to excel. He earned his grit and car control in those series, not by winning all the time (only once in the Busch Series) but by learning week in and week out.
Johnson thrived in the Cup series, where the drivers who can best handle a car on the brink of crashing end up celebrating in Victory Lane. Johnson did that better than anyone. He didn’t just handle a car that likely would have been wicked for most; he made passes look easy. He rarely roughed anyone up in the process. His five consecutive championships were won in arguably the most difficult format — one in which a driver had to run great for 10 consecutive races or risk coming up short.
He kept a clean image for sponsor Lowe’s, which probably hurt him as far as popularity. A little rougher racer and a little rougher personality likely would have made Johnson a little more polarizing, but potentially could have increased the passion of his fan base.
Now in the twilight of his career, Johnson might not have the amazing reactionary skills he had in the past — he would argue against that, but part of me thinks he saves the car in the final turns at Charlotte last month if still in his prime — but he is still a great driver with great talent. He has just gone from Superman to simply great.
That greatness will shine no matter who has the role as crew chief. Kevin Meendering will put solid cars underneath Johnson, and Johnson will make the playoffs in 2019. He probably will win, too, as the Chevrolet teams continue to make their Camaros better.
Their biggest challenge for Meendering will be understanding exactly what Johnson wants in the car. It seemed that Knaus could do that to perfection, or did that up until the 2017 season.
Of course, the 2019 rules package could throw everyone for a twist. So this move makes sense, as Meendering comes in with maybe a little more of an open mind on what might work and what might not with Johnson. Plus, he’ll enter without the drama a Knaus-Johnson relationship could have had, as the inability to regain their former prominence could have caused frustration.
Johnson also owns a fierce a competitive streak, one that rivals the best in the series. Some have viewed his occasional dust-ups as him feeling entitled, but if you have ever seen Johnson competing in other sporting events, that intensity, that drive remains.
If anyone ever questions it — and many of you know, I have asked him why he doesn’t just retire — Johnson responds with a confidence that dares you to think that way, to question him, almost like he knows something that you don’t.
He has never acted that way when asked about Knaus, but that probably was due to respect he has for Knaus’ genius atop the box and also because they had such a long run of success. And Johnson probably worried some knowing the result of another power duo that split — Ray Evernham and Jeff Gordon. Gordon never enjoyed the consistent, dominant success post-split that he did when teamed with Evernham.
But somewhere deep down, Johnson has to know he could thrive without Knaus. Don’t act surprised if he does just that in 2019. He loves to prove people wrong. But even more than that, he has the talent to back it up.