How will Jimmie Johnson be remembered?
After 19 full-time seasons, the greatest NASCAR driver of all time will call it a career on Sunday.
Jimmie Johnson, one of only three drivers to win seven NASCAR Cup Series championships, has stayed true to his word that 2020 would be his final year in the No. 48 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports.
While Johnson won’t be leaving the motorsports scene in 2021, racing part time for Chip Ganassi Racing in the NTT IndyCar Series and potentially NASCAR, his chase for eight will officially come to an end.
Johnson’s peak, from 2004 to 2013, is largely categorized as a period in which NASCAR stopped being good. In those 10 seasons, the sport saw the rise of the Chase, the introduction of the infamous Car of Tomorrow, the fall of Rockingham Speedway and one driver winning six championships.
While Johnson won one more championship in 2016, he conceded the title of week-to-week threat to a rejuvenated Kevin Harvick at his new team at Stewart-Haas Racing. Following that seventh championship, Johnson won three more races the following year and has gone winless for the rest of his NASCAR career, barring a goodbye victory this weekend.
Johnson, after beginning his career on motorcycles and later trophy trucks, transitioned to NASCAR in the late ’90s. After a few iffy years in the Xfinity Series, Johnson was discovered by Jeff Gordon and hired to drive in the Cup Series for Hendrick Motorsports.
His background in high-horsepower trophy trucks came in handy, as he was almost immediately competitive at the Cup level. In some ways, Johnson’s rise reminds me of Tony Stewart’s rise in NASCAR. Stewart was much more high profile coming to stock cars as a former IndyCar champion, and it was always planned coming in that he would drive a Cup car eventually.
Still, like Johnson, Stewart was pretty mediocre in his first season in the Xfinity Series. But his first season in the Cup Series resulted in three wins and a fourth-place points finish, one of the great rookie seasons of all time.
While Johnson’s rookie season wasn’t as impressive as Stewart’s, actually coming short to Ryan Newman for Rookie of the Year, he still won races and actually led the point standings with seven races to go in the season.
Johnson’s big advantage was his ability to handle an extremely loose racecar, thanks to his background. It’s an understated attribute to Johnson, but it needs to be reinforced here. Combine his loose cars with how much more power Hendrick could squeeze out of its engines every year in his prime, and it’s almost not a surprise at how dominant he was.
How will Chad Knaus be remembered?
If Johnson is the greatest driver in NASCAR history, Chad Knaus is the greatest crew chief in history as well.
While Dale Inman has eight Cup championships compared to Knaus’ seven, the reality is that Inman’s role as crew chief for the vast majority of his glory days were dramatically different from modern NASCAR crew chiefs.
A graduate of the Jeff Gordon-Ray Evernham Rainbow Warriors of the ’90s as a tire changer and chassis manager, Knaus had his first gig as a crew chief with Stacy Compton in the dying days of Melling Racing. After one full season, Knaus moved back to Hendrick to work with Johnson, serving as the crew chief and team leader on the No. 48 Chevrolet for 17 seasons.
Knaus and Johnson’s relationship on the radio wasn’t always a bed of roses, with team owner Rick Hendrick once infamously sitting them down to eat milk and cookies after losing the championship in 2005. Treating the two like children may have seemed at the time to run the risk of backfiring and driving the two further apart, but it ended up doing quite the opposite of that.
The No. 48’s five-year championship streak is a record that will never be equaled in this sport. And Knaus was a huge part of it. While there was plenty of criticism over the No. 48 team using the late summer as a glorified test session for the postseason most years, the reality is that exploiting the point system is how every champion in NASCAR has been decided. A Joey Logano win this coming Sunday would be a great example of this.
After 2018, HMS decided a change needed to be made, and Knaus was moved over to the No. 24. While Knaus has failed to match his success with William Byron, the pairing have a win and made the playoffs in both of their seasons together.
Knaus will be retiring from the pit box on Sunday as he takes on a new role at Hendrick Motorsports as competition director.
Wait, how will they both be remembered?
Johnson will be remembered, unfairly, as the face of NASCAR as the sport fell in popularity. He and Knaus were labeled cheaters by many due to constant inspection failures, with a lot of those same people ignoring now how Gordon has admitted to cheating with Evernham in the ’90s or how many times Joe Gibbs Racing has failed pre-race inspection this season.
The job of the crew chief is to push the limits of the rulebook. There’s a reason many of the great crew chiefs in the history of this sport also cheated a fair amount. Smokey Yunick, Gary Nelson, Evernham. Knaus was just the latest to push those limits.
Neither found much success without the other. Johnson won two races while Knaus was suspended in 2006 and has failed to win since Knaus was moved, while Knaus has only won a single race without Johnson. Many label Knaus as the true reason for Johnson’s success, and that simply isn’t accurate; Johnson won a Daytona 500 without Knaus, after all.
Rather, they needed each other. Nobody knew how to set a car up for Johnson like Knaus’ team in the late ’00s, and nobody knew how to get the most speed out of Knaus’ team like Johnson. The two are inseparable in the eyes of history, and while they will not end their active careers together, both will end it at the same time.
While many don’t look back fondly at their reign of dominance, it’s more than clear that as times passes, what the two were able to accomplish together will be something we’ll be proud to tell our grandkids that we watched them together. When you combine the best driver in history with the best crew chief in history, well, the results speak for themselves.
Anyway, what are my picks for the championship races this season?
Oh, and there are also a few championship races this weekend at Phoenix Raceway. Just in case you forgot.
Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series: Brett Moffitt just seems to be peaking at the right time this season. This seems like the most even of the three races, with everybody having a great shot at the championship. Moffitt has the experience of getting the job done and winning a championship that these other three just don’t have.
Xfinity: Justin Allgaier will continue Chevrolet’s streak of championships in this series just based on how good he is in the Grand Canyon State compared to the other three drivers, who have never won at Phoenix.
Cup: Denny Hamlin will pull through, winning the race and his first Cup championship. At least, that’s what my random picker says. Really, any of these four have a solid case at winning this championship, with the weakest pick — Joey Logano — also being the most aggressive of the four and the only one to have won a championship in this format.