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Johnson/Knaus: Looking Back, Going Forward

Every new NASCAR season brings new driver/crew chief pairings, but 2019 will be first time in 17 seasons that Chad Knaus will not be on Jimmie Johnson's pit box. Let's look at why the switch was made and its likely implications.

Every new Cup Season brings a new list of driver/crew chief pairings, but 2019 will be first time in 17 seasons that Chad Knaus will not be on Jimmie Johnson’s pit box. Let’s look at why the switch was made and its likely implications for the people involved and Hendrick Motorsports.

A Driver’s Career in One Graph

In 2017, I looked at driver retirement ages. It turns out that you can see a driver’s trajectory pretty well by looking at his or her cumulative win record as a function of time. Most top drivers (excluding those whose careers were cut short by accidents or surprise retirements) follow pretty much the same trend.

The slopes of the graph (the lines I’ve drawn) show you the rate at which the number of wins is increasing

The typical driver trajectory shows a low slope when gearing up, a steeper slope when the wins come quickly, and a leveling off at the end of a career

We normally see:

  • An initial period of gearing up that might be one year or a few for a driver like Joey Logano who didn’t really get out of that phase until he went to Penske
  • An increase in slope as the wins accumulate at a regular frequency
  • An easing off, where the wins aren’t as frequent.

That plateau, I argued, in when it’s time for a driver to stop. Not the first time the driver goes without a win, but when it’s been a couple seasons and the cumulative win total isn’t increasing. (Of course, these days, the decision to retire isn’t in many drivers’ hands. There are just too many good young drivers in the wings waiting for an open seat.

In that blog, I noted one big exception to the rule: Jimmie Johnson, who had almost no start-up period and no sign of an ‘easing-off plateau’.

That was 2017.

A graph of Jimmie Johnson's career cumulative wins, almost all of which were with Chad Knaus as crew chief

2018 marked Johnson’s first year without a win in his entire Cup career. Until 2018, 2011 was Johnson’s “worst” year, with “only” two wins. (His best was in 2007, when he won 10 races.)

You might argue you could see a definite downturn coming if you look at a plot of just wins per year.

A graph of the number of wins per year for Jimmie Johnson throughout his career shows a decline in the last two years.

But Jimmie’s had declines before — look at 2011 — and he’s sprung back. No one’s ready to write off Jimmie Johnson yet.

It’s Not All About the Driver

The analogy that racing is a team sport only goes so far. In some ways, a better analogy for a NASCAR driver is as a tennis player, swimmer, or figure skater. There are the people who make fast swimsuits or better skates, but the most important relationship is the athlete and his or her coach.

Like those coaches, a NASCAR crew chief is more than a technician. He is engineer, manager, motivator, psychologist… and more.

It’s difficult to separate the role of the crew chief and the driver because there are usually a lot of variables: A crew chief change often comes with a change of teams (and/or manufacturers). There are few cases in which most of these things are held constant.

But there is definite proof that the crew chief does make a difference: Jeff Gordon. Gordon stayed with the same team and manufacturer for his whole career, which eliminates a lot of those variables. But you can divide his career into a couple different distinct slopes, some steeper than others

A graph of cumulative wins vs age for Jeff Gordon

When I tried to figure out if there was any logic to those slopes, it turned out there was.

A graph of cumulative wins for Jeff Gordon, annotated to show that different slopes apply for different crew chiefs. This shows how important crew chiefs are to drivers' success.

The Driver-Crew Chief Partnership

It’s pretty hard to deny the crew chief makes a difference. But if a driver is in a slump, one of the first things a team owner will consider is changing the crew chief. Drivers are the face of the sport: sponsors will often sign on based on the driver, so you can’t easily replace the driver. (Although most sponsors will acquiesce to change if you can get someone more likely to win.)

It’s not a question of finding ‘the best crew chief’ because that title only exists when you’re looking back at records. It’s far more important to find the right crew chief for your driver. Some drivers have gone through crew chief after crew chief in an attempt to match personalities and working styles.

If you ask team owners what they’re looking for in a crew chief, they won’t say mechanical ability. That’s a given. What’s harder to find is someone who can manage and delegate, handle a lot of things at one time, think quickly under pressure and (perhaps most importantly) communicate. An engineering degree isn’t enough and the lack of an engineering degree isn’t an automatic disqualification.

Johnson & Knaus

Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus have one of the longest, most successful driver/crew chief relationships in NASCAR history.

An infographic showing the statistics for the Jimmie Johnson/Chad Knaus partnership: 604 races, 81 victories, 17 seasons and 7 championships

It’s much harder to find data on driver/crew chief pairs than on drivers by themselves or crew chiefs by themselves, but history through the lens of the partnership is interesting. Let’s look first at a list of race wins by a driver/crew chief pair.

A bar graph of race wins by driver/crew chief combination
Some of the data for this graph comes from Ryan McGee’s article on the Top-10 Driver/Crew Chief pairs. The red bars indicate currently active partnerships. Yep, I know there’s a typo in the title.

I didn’t include the team of Petty/Inman in this chart only because they were competing in a time when a driver could win 27 races in a 48-race season. Racing-reference.info‘s page on Inman says that Inman and Petty won 166 races together. (It might be more: McGee says 187.)

Johnson/Knaus also stand out if you look at number of championships won.

A bar graph of championships won by driver/ crew chief pairs
Some of the data for this graph comes from Ryan McGee’s article on the Top-10 Driver/Crew Chief pairs. The red bars indicate currently active partnerships.

By any measure, Johnson and Knaus enjoyed more success than any other crew-chief/driver pair competing in the modern era of NASCAR.

So What Went Wrong?

Although the announcement of the split came shortly after the team was knocked out of the playoffs this year, and there were plenty of contentious exchanges on the radio, Johnson and Knaus denied it was a knee-jerk reaction to the worst full season they’ve had together. They were just ready for a change. But it’s also true that today’s NASCAR has a higher level of competition and much less space for crew chiefs to be creative — one of Knaus’s primary strengths.

Highly competitive people hate losing. Everyone I’ve ever talked to about the Jimmie/Chad partnership has mentioned how very different the two men are. In a business where you have to prove yourself every week, if you’re winning, little else matters. If you stop winning, everything matters.

When Knaus and Johnson joined forces in 2001, they were both single young men (Johnson age 25 and Knaus 30) whose primary emphasis in life was winning races. You get older. Life happens. So let’s look at how life lines up with the data.

An annotated graph of Jimmie Johnson's cumulative career wins with Chad Knaus.

Johnson married in 2004, at age 29, while Knaus married in 2015, at age 44. Look how different people they were in 2013: A driver with a three-year-old and a newborn and a single type-A-plus crew chief. In 2018, Johnson had kids in school while Knaus had a newborn.

Their professional relationship changed as well: They went from novices to legends. Not being successful is much harder when you’ve been successful before. You know you can do it: you just have to figure out what to do differently.

That’s why they’ve made A Star is Born so many times.

The Experiment Begins

I haven’t kept count of how many times I’ve suggested that Hendrick break up Chad and Jimmie, just so we can see what happens. I figured they’d never do it, but I also hadn’t figured they’d have such a disappointing 2018 season. Can they be successful without each other?

In October, 2018, Hendrick Motorsports announced that Knaus would be moving to the 24 team to crew chief for William Byron. Kevin Meendering (Elliott Sadler’s Crew Chief from JR Motorsports) would join the 48 team, replacing Darian Grubb.

Will Johnson show that his driving skill is what put the pair ahead of the pack? Will Knaus show he can make a Cinderella-like transformation of a rookie driver? Or was the magic in the partnership?

After having been together since 1964, Petty and Inman split up in 1981. From 81-85, Inman guided Terry Labonte to a championship and Petty won a handful of races. They reunited in 1986, but never won another race together as crew chief/driver. Pundits like to wonder how much more they might have accomplished had they stayed together.

Knaus and Meendering

Some people questioned giving Johnson a crew chief with only three years experience at the XFINITY level, but Meendering has a 16-year history with Hendrick starting with a high-school internship. He’s a UNC-Charlotte Mechanical Engineering grad who was assistant engineer for the 24 in 2008 and became lead engineer for Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s 88 team in 2011. JR Motorsports is a Hendrick partner, so it’s not like Meendering is stepping into a totally new environment: He knows most of the people and procedures.

It’s unfair to compare 18 years in Cup vs. 3 years in XFINITY, but that’s all we’ve got to go on, so I’m going to do it. Since you can’t compare absolute numbers, I’ve also included percentages.

A table comparing Chad Knaus and Kevin Meendering's records
While Johnson has never had another crew chief, Knaus has had other drivers, which is where the additional seasons come from.

Meedering’s percentages are better than Knaus’s (with the exception of wins), keeping in mind:

  • Meendering was competing in a lower-lever series with one of the better drivers in the series.
  • Meendering was crew chiefing a driver whose hallmark over the last five years has been not quite closing the deal.

Johnson and Byron

Again, not really fair to compare Johnson’s 18 seasons at the Cup level with Byron’s rookie season. Even comparing Johnson’s rookie year with Byron’s isn’t fair:

  • Byron is five years younger than Johnson was his first full-time season.
  • Chevy had a very steep learning curve in 2018 with their new car. Most Chevy teams underperformed.
  • He spent one full season in Trucks and one in XFINITY before being called up. He struggled in Cup, with only 4 top tens and 13 (36.1%) lead lap finishes.

So let’s first compare Byron’s rookie year to Chase Elliott’s rookie year. Same manufacturer (although the caveat about the new car still holds). Byron and Elliott were the same age their rookie years: 20.

A table comparing Chase Elliott's rookie year with William Byron's rookie year.

Maybe a more fair (although still unfair) comparison is to look at Byron’s three full seasons in NASCAR’s top level. The reason he’s in the 24 car is because he was such a standout in Trucks and XFINITY.

A table comparing Jimmie Johnson and William Byron

Byron compares a little better to Johnson on this scale, but remember: he’s literally in a different league now.

The Future?

So what should we expect to see in 2019 from the realignment?

What Does Experience Count for in 2019

You might make the ‘old age and experience’ argument here, putting up Knaus’s twenty Cup seasons against Meendering’s three in XFINITY. But 2019 brings significant rules changes. The basics always remain the same, but every team already has the basics. Winning is about finding the little tricks that get you an extra tenth or give your driver the confidence to try a risky move that gets them a spot.

When you’re used to looking at things in one way, sometimes you miss things. When physics was making the crossover from classical physics to quantum physics, there were very smart scientists who had a hard time adapting to the new paradigm.

The same thing could happen here: We’ve seen veteran, proven drivers struggle when a major change was made to the car and we’ve seen crew chiefs whose style and approach is more suited to only car than another.

Meendering and Johnson

Listening to Meendering work with Sadler shows that he’s not one of those engineers who does well with calculators and computers, but not with people. He’s good at listening to (and managing) his driver. Johnson won’t need as much management as Sadler, but part of a crew chief’s role is cheerleading.

Meendering is 37 years old, five years younger than his new driver. They’re both long-time Hendrick veterans and are comfortable with how Hendrick operates, Steve Letarte, who worked with Meendeering from 2008-2014, has said that Meendering reminds him of Knaus, so this won’t be a big change for Johnson.

They’re hoping for the same kind of spark that Kevin Harvick had when he went to Stewart-Haas and paired up with Rodney Childers. Sometimes, that spark is all you need.

The Downside?

Taking on the job of crew chief for a high-profile driver is a risk. Just ask Steve Letarte. The pressure here won’t be as great. I initially thought that was because Johnson was coming off such a bad 2018, but it’s actually not just last year.

As I looked at the data further, I realized something interesting. For most drivers, the number of wins is the first thing to go. Many keep getting top 5s and top 10s, even if they aren’t winning. Going back over the data, that’s not the case for Johnson.

Let’s look at the number of Top 10s and Top 5s per year for Johnson.

A graph of Top 10s per year for Jimmie Johnson from 2001-present

Johnson could be counted on for 20-25 top 10s per year until 2016.

A graph of top 5's for Jimmie Johnson 2001-present, showing a distinct downward trend from 2012 onward.

There’s a definite turndown in the number of top 5s per year as well. He had three wins in 2017, but only one other top-5 finish.

The point is that, if Meendering and Johnson aren’t successful, you can make the argument that Johnson’s downward trend is more on his driving than anything else (especially if other Hendrick drivers are successful). It’s also possible that their styles just don’t mesh — a crew chief will almost always be removed before the driver.

Knaus and Byron

Knaus’s job is to win with his new driver, but it’s actually much bigger than that. Consider what Rick Hendrick said when announcing the change:

Chad has the Rainbow Warriors pedigree and truly appreciates the history of the No. 24. I’ve asked him to build another winner and given him the green light to put his stamp on the team and do it his way.

Rick Hendrick (via Hendrick Motorsports)

This sounds to me like Hendrick is giving Knaus free rein to build a team about Byron the same way he built a team around Johnson: Not to turn one driver into a championship overnight, but to create a foundation on which to build for many years.

The 24 driver-crew chief relationship won’t be a partnership of equals: It will be more of a teacher-student relationship. Byron is 20 years old with one (mediocre) Cup season under his belt. He not going to question Knaus. He’s going to ask questions and absorb everything he can, but he’s probably not going to be disagreeing with how Knaus runs the team.

Knaus’s first job is getting Byron through races with his car intact.

  • Crashing out isn’t just demoralizing during the race. It bleeds over into the next weeks at the shop. Instead of thinking about new ideas, the team is repairing and replacing.
  • DNFs also means less on-track time, so less time in the seat — extra important since they can’t test. Elliott completed more than 800 more laps than Elliott did his rookie year. That’s 800 laps of experience lost.

Byron will improve this year. He’s too good a driver not to, regardless of who’s calling the shots. While I’m sure Knaus believes they can win the championship, that’s a long way to come.

The Downside?

While you might think having the best crew chief in NASCAR is a great thing for a young driver, that depends on how much patience your owner has.

If Byron doesn’t improve much, the bulk of the criticism (fairly or unfairly) is likely to land on him, simply because of Chad’s record and the perception that crew chiefs don’t age out of the job the way drivers do. A lot of young drivers are piling up in XFINITY and Trucks for lack of rides at the Cup level. If Byron were anywhere but HMS, I’d be worried for him, but Hendrick has a history of giving drivers and teams time to evolve.

But not forever.

The Institutional View

Doing this analysis got me thinking about the long term. We tend to look at these changes season-by-season and from the perspective of people involved.

But this change is really about more. It’s about the future of HMS.

Rick Hendrick has built one of the most stable teams in NASCAR history. He’s attracted and kept great talent for longer tenures than most drivers have at one company. This is a man who got rid of one of the sport’s most talented drivers because he didn’t (or refused to) fit into the company culture.

One of the problems with the lack of sponsorship is that teams are force to focus on the near future, not the long term. HMS has taken the long view. Rick Hendrick is taking step to ensure that the company is not only successful now, but continues to survive into the future. RCR has a similar approach, but with a dynastic element — which history suggests isn’t always the best choice when building empires.

If you were Rick Hendrick, with two veterans who have been astoundingly successful, but might be at the end of their careers, what do you do? Best case is that you re-assign them and one (or both) are successful with their new partners. But even if neither is the standout they were when together, you’ve got Johnson passing along his years of experience to a new Cup crew chief and a 20-year-old driver with huge potential ahead of him getting the benefit of Knaus’s experience.

Even if it isn’t a win for Johnson or Knaus, it’s a win for the company.

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