Both driver Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have had their eyes on a record-breaking eighth Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver’s championship, ever since the duo won their seventh title together in 2016.
Thanks to a bombshell move by team owner Rick Hendrick, however, the pair won’t have a chance to work together after the 2018 season. Knaus is moving to the No. 24 Hendrick Chevrolet next season to work with young driver William Byron, and Kevin Meendering will take over as crew chief for Johnson.
The Johnson/Knaus split brings to an end the longest-running driver/crew chief combination in the Cup garage. Johnson is winless this season, in the throes of a drought that reached 53 races on Sunday at Dover, where Johnson didn’t join the Gander Outdoors 400 until the race was 10 laps old, thanks to a lower ball joint failure right before the start.
Johnson was eliminated from the series Playoffs on Sept. 30 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course, where he wrecked in the final chicane while battling Martin Truex, Jr. for the victory.
Johnson, 43, and Knaus, 47, have worked together for 17 years. During their partnership, Johnson has won 83 races, most among active drivers, with Knaus calling the shots for 81 of them. (Johnson won twice in 2006 when Knaus was on suspension.)
But Hendrick decided it was time to shake things up.
“It’s no secret that Chad and Jimmie have experienced their ups and downs over the years,” Hendrick said in a press release announcing the changes. “They’re fierce competitors, great friends and have immense respect for one another.
“They also fight like brothers. All three of us agree it’s finally time for new challenges and that a change will benefit them and the organization.”
Meendering, 37, will move to Hendrick from the organization’s NASCAR Xfinity Series affiliate JR Motorsports, where he currently is serving as crew chief for Elliott Sadler as the Virginia driver chases the series title for the final time. Sadler has announced his planned retirement from full-time racing at year’s end.
“Having worked with a veteran driver like Elliott Sadler for three years is extremely valuable experience,” Hendrick said. “He’s the right fit for Jimmie at the right time. With an established No. 48 team behind them, I believe they will perform at a winning level next season and chase that eighth championship.”
The personnel moves include the promotion of Darian Grubb to technical director for Hendrick Motorsports. During Knaus’ 2006 suspension, Grubb won the Daytona 500 as Johnson’s substitute crew chief and was also on the pit box for Johnson’s Las Vegas victory in the third race of the that season.
Grubb, 43, was Tony Stewart’s crew chief at Stewart-Haas Racing in 2011, when Stewart won five Playoff races and claimed the series title in a tiebreaker over Carl Edwards. Grubb will finish out the season as crew chief for Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender Byron. Together they have posted three top 10s in 30 races, with a best finish of sixth at Pocono.
“Darian has established himself as a respected leader in our company, and we’ve seen him thrive in an executive role,” Hendrick said. “We’ve identified opportunities for improvement, and we know having him step up to technical director will help move us forward in those areas.
“He’s a champion who brings a wealth of knowledge that will continue to benefit us.”