The collective NASCAR world was left mouth agape Wednesday, Oct. 10, when it was announced that Chad Knaus will not return as Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief in 2019.
The dynamic duo that has been together since Johnson’s rookie season in 2002, and after a record-tying seven championships the pair will call it quits after Homestead-Miami Speedway this season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
Whether it was a relationship that ran its course or simply succession planning, as the two will likely be moving on to new roles within the next few years, is immaterial. From the outside looking it, it would seem the odds of Johnson winning a record-setting eighth championship may have been reduced significantly. That is not so much of a knock against Johnson as it is recognizing the significance of the race strategist and architect of a team that took his mentor Ray Evernham’s mantra of “Refuse to Lose” and shaped it something resembling Conan’s “Crush Your Enemies, See Them Driven Before You, and Hear the Lamentations of the Women” since their infamous milk-and-cookies sit-down following their title-contending collapse in 2005.
In the annals of driver/crew chief combos, Johnson and Knaus were synonymous with each other and will go down as perhaps the greatest pairing of all time. No doubt they will be mentioned in same breath 20 years from now, just as they have been for almost two decades.
Where will they stand among some of the most memorable pairings? Let’s take a look back at some other notable driver/crew chief combos throughout NASCAR’s history:
Richard Petty and Dale Inman
The greatest driver and crew chief extant? The prototype for prosperity through longevity? The genesis of Bo and Luke Duke? Cousins Petty and Inman combined for 192 wins, seven Daytona 500 victories and seven championships while they were paired from 1963-1981, with Inman going on to win another title with Terry Labonte in 1984. He returned to Petty Enterprises in 1986 in a management role and served in other capacities on the team until 1998. One of the models for professional racecar preparation, attention to safety and detail (along with being one of the toughest guys in the garage), it was not uncommon to see him show up and still run stop watches from time-to-time even a few years ago.
Ray Evernham and Jeff Gordon
A team that was destined for greatness and destined for success, Ray Evernham and Jeff Gordon both came from open-wheel backgrounds, with Evernham having success as a modified driver, while Gordon was tearing up the Midwest in sprint cars. Snatched from Ford Motor Company, this was a pairing that had instant success out of the gate, winning its second actual race in one of the Daytona 125-mile qualifying races in 1993.
After tearing the front clips off of 14 cars in Gordon’s rookie season, they seemed to get things figured out in 1994, winning the Coca-Cola 600 and inaugural Brickyard 400. They elevated Hendrick Motorsports to the premier organization in NASCAR, winning the 1995 Cup championship, followed up by titles in 1997 and 1998, a loss to teammate Terry Labonte in 1996 preventing four straight championship seasons.
Evernham reshaped the architecture of race teas, setting goals and stepping stones to a dynasty. From revolutionizing pit crew preparedness to building some of the most exotic don’t-bring-that-thing-back-here creations, the No. 24 team served as the prototype for the current No. 48 organization. That 1998 season still stands as one of the most dominant in the modern era, with Gordon winning 13 of 33 races en route to the pair’s third and final championship together.
It’s interesting to note that that season, Gordon’s Monte Carlo was the only Chevrolet to win on a track larger than .75 miles, excluding plate races (and even then, only Dale Earnhardt’s Daytona 500 win would register), and was one third-place finish at New Hampshire Motor Speedway away from winning six races in a row.
Dale Earnhardt and Kirk Shelmerdine
The third part of the seven-time triad, Dale Earnhardt, captured his seven titles with three different crew chiefs: Doug Richert (1980), Andy Petree (1993, 1994) and Kirk Shelmerdine (1986, 1987, 1990, 1991). The fact that Shelmerdine has not been mentioned as a serious Hall of Fame candidate in recent years is a bit surprising given those credentials. In the late 70s, Shelmerdine headed south from Philadelphia, following in the footsteps of Rocky Balboa, and joined a fledgling Richard Childress Racing in 1982. Once Childress had proper funding and the driver to take things to the next level, everything clicked instantly. From the Junkyard Dogs to the Flying Aces, the No. 3 crew led by Shelmerdine was consistently among the fastest teams on pit road.
Citing burnout in 1992, he retired from the crew chief role at the end of the year and pursued his own career as a driver. He had a best finish of 20th in the 2006 Daytona 500 (using a borrowed RCR engine and tires donated by Earnhardt fans) and won three races in the ARCA Racing Series.
Tim Richmond and Harry Hyde
A pairing so unlikely, it transformed Hendrick Motorsports into a force to be reckoned with. The young, brash, up-and-coming driver known for a lifestyle as fast as his racecars paired with the former World War II tank commander who helped guide Bobby Isaac to the 1970 championship and 28 land speed records at Bonneville set the NASCAR world on its ear – if only for a couple of years. Upon their introduction, Richmond took Hyde out to lunch, borrowing an IROC-Z from Rick Hendrick’s dealership. While driving in a display of either talent or earning trust, instead of taking a turn to head in the other direction, Richmond yanked up on the parking brake, slid the car through the median and got headed in the other direction. The rest is the stuff of Hollywood legend and the inspiration for Days of Thunder.
David Pearson and Leonard Wood
A pairing second only to Petty and Inman, the Wood Brothers and David Pearson are as integral to each other as Purolator and Mercury. Even only running a limited schedule, it was usually No. 21 vs. No. 43 every weekend. Wood served as Pearson’s crew chief from 1972 through 1979, when the wheels fell off at Pearson’s home track of Darlington Raceway. No, they literally fell off the car. Following a miscommunication during a pit stop, Pearson left with the lugs off, and the tires came off the car. Depending on who you hear the story from, Pearson either quit the team after that or was quietly asked to leave. The two have still remained friends over the years, with Wood doing the honors of inducting Pearson into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2011.
Davey Allison and Larry McReynolds
It’s just as hard to separate Davey Allison from Robert Yates Racing and the No. 28 Havoline Ford as it is Larry McReynolds. A driver and crew chief combo that showed it was ready to take on the world during the 1991 season did just that in 1992. Following a dominant performance in the Daytona 500, Allison was injured and cut from his car after winning The Winston All-Star Race in 1992. Two months later, Allison was involved in a horrific accident at Pocono Raceway after being turned into the grass by Darrell Waltrip, barrel-rolling over the guard rail. Rallying back from first-lap damage in the season’s final race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the No. 28 seemed like it might just upend the title race after all, but it wasn’t meant to be.
Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Hammond
If there ever was a polar opposite pairing, it would be these two. The motormouth nicknamed Jaws, who never met a camera or a microphone he didn’t like, paired with the slow-talking drawl of the most brilliant mind in Wilkes County. Waltrip and Junior Johnson flat-out dominated NASCAR in the early 1980s. When NASCAR debuted the downsized cars in 1981, many teams and drivers balked, as the cars were very loose and hard to drive. From 1981-1986, Waltrip and Johnson won 43 races (when there were only 28-31 races a season) and three championships in 1981, 1982 and 1985. Tim Brewer was his crew chief for a 12-win season in 1981, while Jeff Hammond took the helm in 1982. The results were largely the same: 12 wins and a second consecutive championship. They narrowly missed out on a fourth in 1983, finishing second to Bobby Allison by only 47 points.
In 1985, while Bill Elliott was laying waste to superspeedways, making up two laps at Talladega Superspeedway and winning million-dollar bonuses, Waltrip and Hammond were getting it done on the short tracks and top three-ing the field to death en route to a third title.
When Waltrip left Hendrick Motorsports to form his own team in 1991. Hammond was the man he chose to be atop the war wagon — the pair winning in just the seventh race of the season at North Wilkesboro Speedway.
While many decry the boogity business and some of the TV antics today, it shouldn’t overshadow what was a truly remarkable career and fruitful few years.
Some of Waltrip’s most endearing and enduring moments are his stories of races during this period with Hammond, as well as Johnson coming on the radio, addressing him as “Durrell…” with some well-timed motivational needling.