At the end of November, Jimmie Johnson traveled to Bahrain for the fun of testing a Formula One car, and Chad Knaus actually took a short vacation.
But don’t expect either one to take much time off in the coming weeks, as Johnson and Knaus get to work in earnest with their new Hendrick Motorsports driver-crew chief combinations.
Even while Johnson was in Bahrain, he was communicating with new crew chief Kevin Meendering. A former Hendrick engineer, Mendeering had spent the past few years at JR Motorsports, most recently as Elliott Sadler‘s crew chief.
Meendering has replaced Knaus as crew chief for Johnson in the No. 48 Chevrolet. For the first time in 17 seasons, the seven-time Cup champion Johnson went winless during a season, and starting in February, Johnson will have a crew chief overseeing Cup preparations other than Knaus.
“I talked to Kevin the Monday after Homestead [and] he was moving into his new office,” Johnson said last week at NASCAR Cup Awards festivities in Las Vegas. “I texted with him while I was away and touched base with him [Wednesday] before I flew out [for the awards].
“I haven’t been in much contact with the Cup side of life — but definitely will be back into it when I get back to North Carolina.”
Knaus will replace Darian Grubb as crew chief for William Byron in the No. 24 Chevy. Since September, Byron and Knaus have been working on things to get a jump on 2019.
“We started back in September. We started talking a little bit and we met then, and I’ve honestly talked to him a couple of times a week every week, but we didn’t talk this [awards] week because he was on vacation,” Byron said last week.
“I feel like he obviously has a lot of experience, but he also has a pretty young mindset, which is pretty cool.”
That mindset, though, also will include having to adjust to working with a new crew Knaus has assembled.
“We’ve got some different personnel, so we’re going to be building for a few weeks,” Byron said. “And then once we build that up, we should gel pretty good, and after that [we’ll need to] just acclimate ourselves to the  aero package.”
Both crew chiefs will have to acclimate themselves to their drivers.
“I don’t think people understand how quickly [Byron] has risen to where he is,” Knaus said in October when the deal was announced. “This kid has got a boatload of talent. So for me to get the opportunity to work with him is just like getting the opportunity to work with Jimmie back then.
“That excitement level is very, very similar. Now, it’s a little different right because back then we didn’t have anything. We hadn’t won a race — we hadn’t done much of anything.”
Knaus won 81 races and seven titles as crew chief for Johnson (who won two additional races without Knaus atop the box while he had been serving suspensions). The 47-year-old Knaus learned the Hendrick system as a crew member on Ray Evernham’s team working on Jeff Gordon’s car.
“I’m very fortunate that I’ve won some races,” Knaus said. “[Byron] has already won a championship in the Xfinity Series and the kid [raced Cup as a rookie at] 20 years old.
“It’s exciting for me, it really is. Again, I’m an old-racer guy, but I’m totally geeked to be crew chief on the No. 24 car. I’m not lying when I said that when I started here I was like, ‘Man, I want to be crew chief on that No. 24 car.’ I always wanted to be Jeff Gordon’s crew chief. I didn’t make that happen, but I was at least crew chief for his team and for his car number.”
For Johnson, it will be an adjustment to work with someone new.
“We’ve had a lot going on leading into it and I think the team is in pretty solid order and ready to go,” Johnson said. “Now it’s getting into the offseason and working on the 2019 rules package.”
Meendering feels ready for the position. Knaus and Meendering likely will bring a little bit different styles and approaches. Meendering appears a little less stressed than Knaus.
“I’m looking to come in and put my footprint on it,” he said after the October announcement. “Obviously, I have a certain approach to things. I’m here to try to build the team and take it to that next level. I think a lot of it is establishing communication with Jimmie.
“I think that is probably the biggest thing we need to work on or establish early on is just understanding what Jimmie needs.”
Byron is looking forward to working with Knaus and learning.
“[I learned] how [Knaus] operates throughout the week, how he preps,” Byron said without going into too much detail. “He does some funny things just to get an idea of the track and things, so that’s pretty cool.”