Considered one of the most successful Cup series driver and crew chief pairings in NASCAR history, Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus will no longer be working alongside each other once the 2019 season rolls around. Their 17-year career together, one that includes seven Cup championships and 83 victories, will end amid much speculation over how they will fare without each other.
Kevin Meendering, crew chief for Elliott Sadler in the Xfinity Series, will take over the No. 48 team starting in 2019, while Knaus will become crew chief for Hendrick Motorsports driver William Byron.
Johnson and Knaus each addressed the upcoming changes at HMS on Thursday, but we’re still left to ponder how the duo will succeed separately. Here’s what our ESPN experts had to say when presented with this doozy of a question:
Who gets their eighth Cup series championship first: Chad or Jimmie?
Mike Clay, ESPN: This is a tough one. I have high hopes for Byron, but it figures to take a few seasons before he’s a legitimate championship contender, and it’s hard to know if Knaus will even be a crew chief when that time comes (he seems primed for a terrific career in television in the near future). Retirement in the next half decade seems to be a possibility for Johnson as well, but I believe he’s hunting for that historic eighth title before he hangs up his helmet. HMS is too good an organization to be stuck behind the eight ball for a long stretch, so I think they’ll find the speed and help Johnson to one final title.
Ricky Craven, ESPN NASCAR analyst: Johnson has the upperhand to win an eighth title before Knaus, but it needs to happen in the next few years, and with that comes added pressure. Knaus being teamed with a 21-year-old sophomore driver has a very long runway. I expect he will be the authority at the No. 24 car for a long time provided he shows the enthusiasm and commitment we have seen from him in the past. Johnson can’t afford a slow start next year, at age 42, the lifting feels heavier then ever before. Johnson has the crew chief, the resolve and the will for one last hurrah. I truly believe the No. 48 returns to championship form in 2019.
Bob Pockrass, ESPN.com: Johnson will earn an eighth title before Knaus, but only because Byron needs probably at least three more years before he wins a title. Johnson knows how to handle the pressure and while Byron won a title in the Xfinity Series, the pressure and the playoffs are way more intense. Some might say the 2019 rules package doesn’t favor Johnson (Byron won the Xfinity race at Indianapolis last year with a similar package), and they are probably right. But that doesn’t mean that Johnson won’t win while racing it.
Marty Smith, ESPN: I base that opinion on the fact he will have the same core group preparing his race cars, just with a different mind with new ideas and a different leadership approach directing the team. Meanwhile, Knaus will build a new program around a young driver — a challenge he’s excited about, but one with which he’ll need to remain patient. Johnson and Knaus are both brilliant — possibly the best to ever do it at their respective positions. Seventeen seasons and seven championships together is remarkable, historic even. But nothing lasts forever professionally. Hell, even Brooks & Dunn broke up once. Sometimes change is good. This is one of those times.
Alisha Miller, ESPN.com: Had the question been, who will win more Cup races over the course of next few seasons, my answer would shift to Mr. Seven-Time Cup Champ because he still has a couple of trips to Victory Lane left on that veteran driver E-ZPass of his. But Johnson barely got into the playoffs this year and I see that being the case going forward with the dearth of talent coming into the series (see, #BobsBigBoard). However, the question centers on an eighth title and that has to be Knaus, who has the institutional knowledge, the lack of wear and tear from thousands of miles inside a stock car and the HMS backing to get Byron hoisting a Cup trophy before Johnson does.
Scott Symmes, ESPN.com: That’s not to say William Byron will be my championship pick in 2019. The 20-year-old prodigy needs a lot more seasoning, which he will get from Knaus, before he’s ready to win a title at the Cup level. So what does the future hold for Jimmie? I think he wins a race or two in the years ahead, but he’s done hoisting championship trophies. He’s had a great run — arguably the greatest driving career in NASCAR history — but an eighth title is not in the cards. Yes, I realize there’s a good chance I’ll eat those words.
Matt Willis, ESPN Stats & Information: Dale Earnhardt was 43 years old when he won his seventh and final Cup title in 1994. Richard Petty was 42 when he won his seventh and final title in 1979. Both those drivers drove for several seasons after their final title but never recaptured their title magic. Jimmie Johnson will turn 44 late in the 2019 season. That’s enough reason to think Johnson will not win another championship, regardless of what great physical condition Johnson keeps. HMS is down right now, but I have faith in their research and development program to right the ship in the offseason. Jeff Gordon won a title at 23 years old in his third full season (1995). Terry Labonte won a title in his third season with Hendrick (1996). Johnson needed five full seasons. Talented drivers can turn around a championship quickly at Hendrick, and it’s reasonable to think Knaus would stay with the No. 24 team for three to five seasons and give himself a chance to equal Dale Inman’s record of eight championships as a crew chief.
None of the above
Ryan McGee, ESPN senior writer: I’m going to be Debbie Downer and say none of the above. Johnson will win races and Chad will win races. But probably not a lot of them and probably not a championship. History tells us that these super duos never do as well when they are no longer a team. They might do OK, they might even win a Cup race, but the days of doing all of that in bunches are behind them. Dale Inman won one more title after leaving Richard Petty. Dale Earnhardt won two titles after his breakup with Kirk Shelmerdine, but none after the departure of Shelmerdine’s replacement, Andy Petree. When I’ve talked to folks such as the Wood Brothers and David Pearson, Ray Evernham and Jeff Gordon, Inman and Petty, Earnhardt and Shelmerdine and Petree … even when they’ve had some success apart, there has still always been an air of, “What if we’d stuck it out just a little longer?” After 17 years, it’s hard to believe Johnson and Knaus left anything on the table. But again, history says that’s how we’ll end up looking back on it.
Scott Page, Jayski editor: Neither will get an eighth championship. All indications are that Knaus may want to be on the road only a few more years. While Byron has a lot of potential, I think it will take longer than that for him to be a legitimate title contender. On the other hand, Johnson has at least a couple more years left, but the competition in NASCAR is as strong as it has been for a while. With numerous younger drivers stepping up (Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones, Christopher Bell), it makes that eighth championship even more elusive for both Johnson and Knaus.