Johnson and Knaus: The Hall of Fame Pairing That Almost Wasn't

Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus were an electric pairing from the beginning, but by the end of the 2005 season, their relationship had started cracking under stress. However, Rick Hendrick applied the glue that kept the now Hall of Fame pairing together.


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Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus became one of the most potent driver/crew chief pairings in NASCAR history over 17 seasons together. The duo amassed more than 80 victories and seven NASCAR Cup Series championships. On Friday, the two were fittingly inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame together as part of the Class of 2024.

But there was a time when the now legendary combo faced a fork in the road as their relationship had formed stress fractures following the 2005 NASCAR Cup Series campaign, which threatened to change the course of NASCAR history.

Following their induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Friday, Johnson and Knaus spoke to the media in a post-event press conference, and they described in great detail what led the pairing to nearly split just before they reached the mountaintop.

In 2002, Rick Hendrick took a flier, at the request of Jeff Gordon, on a young driver named Jimmie Johnson, who had just one NASCAR Xfinity Series win to his credit, for his newly formed No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team. Hendrick paired Johnson with Knaus, who had previously served as a crew member for Gordon's Rainbow Warrior team from the early to late 1990s and had just come off of his first crew chief gig with Melling Racing, which closed down following the 2001 season.

Johnson and Knaus were electric from the get-go.

In that magical 2002 rookie campaign, Johnson tied the record for most wins by a rookie driver in the NASCAR Cup Series with three, and by season's end, the rookie of the year contender finished fifth in the overall championship standings.

A true formidable championship contender was born, and in the three seasons after their rookie year, Johnson and Knaus would come close, bitterly close, to scoring their first NASCAR Cup Series championship, but would ultimately fall short finishing second in points in 2003 and 2004 and fifth in 2005.

"In our eyes, we had two opportunities slip away, and you just never know how many looks you're going to get of winning a championship," Johnson explained.

The duo notched 18 wins over their first four seasons in the NASCAR Cup Series, but failing to get over the hump for their first championship led to a lot of hostility between the driver and crew chief. In NASCAR, championships are hard to come by, and narrowly missing out on one is a tough pill to swallow. Narrowly missing out on one in each of your first four seasons together, is downright unbearable, and the foundation of a championship contender was beginning to crumble in.

"That frustration of being so close was really the foundation of the frustration and anger," Johnson recalled.

Knaus says that while the No. 48 team had flourished in its first few seasons of existence, he was severely struggling with not winning a title.

"It was a really hard time for me," Knaus admitted. "We had such a steep trajectory and really thought we should have won a championship by then. We had a very good opportunity to win the championship in 2002, our very first year."

Following the 2005 NASCAR Cup Series season finale, which equated to the fourth-consecutive championship near-miss for the No. 48 team, both Johnson and Knaus separately called team owner Rick Hendrick to voice their frustrations, which led Hendrick to call a meeting for everyone to hash out their issues.

"This was maybe the week after Homestead, and we were just angry and mad," Johnson said. "Both of us had spoken to Rick, and definitely I felt like a baby or a kid, and that led Rick to the idea for that meeting."

Both Johnson and Knaus came into the meeting boiling over, and the pressure cooker was about to explode. In came Hendrick to the meeting room -- with milk and cookies. Hendrick opened the conversation by telling the young driver and young crew chief that if they were going to act like children, he was going to treat them like children.

Hendrick carrying a gallon of milk and a pack of cookies into the meeting helped cut the tension some, but the animosity remained between Johnson and Knaus. That is until Hendrick got a little more forceful with the props he brought into the meeting.

"[The anger subsided] After Rick truly demanded us to eat cookies and to drink the milk. Because we were like, 'Okay, fine,' we break the cookies, and he was like, 'No, eat the cookie.' We take a bite, and he says, 'No, take a bigger bite. Now drink the milk,'" Johnson described. "Rick keeps pushing us to get into the experience and gives us the chance to kind of air what's on our minds. And then we got in a real conversation in many ways and no joke we left that meeting and changed our course in how we worked, we went in a different direction."

That day, Hendrick, Johnson, and Knaus all agreed that they would take a completely different approach heading into the 2006 NASCAR Cup Series season. Johnson would learn to trust his crew chief more. His crew chief, who refused to delegate and was taking on every task involving the No. 48 car in the team's shop, would relinquish a bulk of the duties to the talented staff at Hendrick Motorsports.

"Giving everybody a little bit more tangible interest in the team as opposed to me doing it all," Knaus stated were the changes he made following the ever-important meeting. "I was building the shocks, I was setting up the cars, I was putting the bodies on the cars, I was doing it all prior to that. And we had a tremendous amount of success, but it was very selfish, very selfish for me to go through that."

Knaus continued, "At that point, I was like, 'I'm not doing this anymore. I'm going to take the advice of the man who has mentored us and given us an opportunity,' and changed the structure of the No. 48 team."

The No. 48 team would roll into Daytona International Speedway in February 2006, hoping the offseason changes would improve them. They would leave Daytona with the Harley J. Earl trophy after Johnson scored his first career Daytona 500 win. Four wins, and 35 races later, Johnson and Knaus were champions.

And then they were champions again in each of the next four seasons. History was made, and then continually made as Johnson and Knaus collected two more championships on their paths to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, and it was all thanks to Hendrick's decision to bring milk and cookies to a meeting with Johnson and Knaus at the end of the 2005 season.

"I think there was a lot of weight in that meeting that we had," Johnson stated emphatically, as Knaus nodded in approval.

Photo Credit: Sarah Crabill, Getty Images

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