Long: Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus end mirrors their beginning in subtleness

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CONCORD, N.C. — Their beginning can be found on page 2C of the Dec. 11, 2001 edition of The Charlotte Observer.

Below a note that Ryan Newman would use the No. 12 for his rookie Winston Cup season and an item about Mark Martin’s new car chief at Roush Racing, was a small headline:

Knaus goes back to Hendrick.

The three-paragraph item stated that Chad Knaus would return to Hendrick Motorsports to be rookie Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief for the 2002 season.

Nearly 17 years — and seven championships — later, the announcement of the duo’s pending departure shocked NASCAR in the same understated way.

Even though such news would merit a formal press conference streamed online, this was a casual session. Reporters sat on a couch or comfy chairs. Johnson and Knaus walked in carrying drinks in paper coffee cups.

They sat beside each other inside a building on the Hendrick Motorsports campus that didn’t exist when they began working together and discussed why a partnership that produced a record-tying number of titles and 81 wins (Johnson won twice while Knaus was suspended by NASCAR in 2006) would not continue after this year.

The end did not come because of one thing or another in particular but over time. Yes, a 53-race winless streak contributed to it, a sign that a partnership that had been feared in the garage was beatable. While they had pondered separating in the past, now it made sense.

“It wasn’t an easy decision,” Johnson said. “It took time to make it and you go through the thoughts of seeing it end. Could we have finished together? Of course, we have batted around all the questions that you are asking, but at some point, you have to go with your gut and it just feels right.”

Knaus preferred to look back at what they’ve accomplished.

“Let’s be frank, whoever thought that this would have gone 17 years? My point is this, instead of reflecting on what is the unknown, reflect a little bit on what we accomplished,” he said. “And that is what I have really focused on. 

“We have done amazing things over the course of our career. It should not have stemmed the span that it did. That is very, very comforting to me, personally. You can try to twist it all you want and do that stuff, but that is not what it is about. There are great opportunities for both of us.”

Their responses reveal who they are. Johnson, the California native with the heavy right foot and thoughtful, free-thinking ways and Knaus the no-nonsense Midwesterner.

When they started, they were the new kids who had been given access to car owner Rick Hendrick’s castle. Their debut season together came after Jeff Gordon had won his fourth title in 2001.

With a champion to lean on and more toys — resources — than the North Pole, Knaus played mad scientist and Johnson was Speed Racer. They won a pole in their first start. They won a race in their 10th start together. Then they won three races later.

While they fought — as brothers, as they liked to say — success kept them together. The longer they lasted, the more it seemed as if they would stay together until Johnson quit driving.

But the struggles on the track accelerated the thinking. While this team has shown more speed recently and Knaus remains confident that they can win this season, it became time for change.

“We have had a hell of a run,” Johnson said. “And a new spark probably wouldn’t hurt us. There is something to that and something new that we can both participate in. And then still at the same time be there for one another on a level that I don’t think has ever existed when a driver/crew chief do split. These splits usually are pretty tough. And in our situation, it’s not that. So, I have an ally and he has an ally. 

“Once you make the decision, and you start putting one foot in front of the other, I often find a lot of excitement in those moments and I have in this.”

Now that we know they will be apart, the question becomes how much longer will they be in their current roles?

Johnson’s contract is through 2020. The 43-year-old would like to drive another decade or more but admits those all won’t be in Cup.

Knaus’ contract also goes through 2020. How much longer will the 47-year-old father of a newborn want to be on the road every weekend?

“As of right now, the goal is going to be for me personally is go build the No. 24 team to be the best team that I am possibly capable of,” Knaus said. “And we go and we win.”

Then Knaus added: “I doubt very highly that William and I will be together for 17 years.”

He laughed.

Jeff Andrews, vice president of competition at Hendrick Motorsports, said that Knaus understands the challenges ahead.

“I know that Chad wouldn’t commit to do it if he had short-term plans about it,” Andrews said. “He knows that it’s going to take some level of commitment. That commitment is going to be possibly years to get the success out of it that he expects and we expect out of it.”

Until then, there are six races left for Knaus and Johnson to work together, six more chances to win another race, six more Sundays of us vs. them and then this chapter ends.

And a new era begins.

Johnson will be paired with Kevin Meendering, who rose through the ranks at Hendrick and has served as Elliott Sadler’s crew chief the past three seasons at JR Motorsports. Knaus will be teamed with 20-year-old wunderkid William Byron, who is a part of the organization’s future, just as Johnson was when he began.

Off the track, a new era also begins for Johnson and Knaus.

“I talked to Gordon about it and he swears that he and Ray (Evernham) are better friends now than what they were when they were winning championships and winning races,” Knaus said, “and I feel like we will be the same way.”

With that, Johnson and Knaus got up and walked along a quiet hallway to their next assignment. Work remained.

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Mother of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kelley Earnhardt Miller dies at 65

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Brenda Jackson, mother of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kelley Earnhardt Miller, has died following a battle with cancer, JR Motorsports announced Monday. She was 65.

Formerly Brenda Gee, she married Dale Earnhardt in 1972. Together they had Kelley (1972) and Dale Jr. (1974) before separating.

Jackson was one of two daughters and four children to NASCAR fabricator Robert Gee, a Virginia native who built winning cars for racers, including Earnhardt.

After her separation from Earnhardt, the children stayed with her as Earnhardt tried to establish his racing career. After a fire claimed their home, Jackson moved back to Virginia while the children went to live with Earnhardt.

She remarried in 1985 to William M. Jackson Jr., a firefighter in Norfolk, Virginia. When he retired they moved back to North Carolina with step-daughter Meredith. Jackson joined JR Motorsports as an accounting specialist in 2004 and remained there through 2019.

Jackson is survived by her husband; her children Dale Earnhardt Jr. (wife Amy), Kelley Earnhardt Miller (husband L.W.), step-daughter Meredith Davis (husband Jonathan); her grandchildren Karsyn Elledge (18), Kennedy Elledge (13), Wyatt Miller (7), Callahan Davis (16), Claudia Davis (13), and Isla Rose Earnhardt (11 months); her brothers Robert Gee (wife Beverly) and Jimmy Gee; and her beloved Pekingese dog, Scully.

Memorial contributions may be sent to Piedmont Animal Rescue or Hospice and Palliative Care of Iredell.

Nashville Fairgrounds promoters respond to claims of contract breach

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Last week Claire Formosa, the VP of Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville, and a lawyer representing Formosa Productions pushed back against allegations made by the Nashville Board of Fair Commissioners that the company had breached its contract to run the track.

On April 8, the Fair Board commission sent a letter to the Formosas informing them that it was exercising a breach clause in their contract over two items: the track breaking its designated curfew of 7 p.m. on a school night and unpaid concessions commission of $31,930 from last year.

A third issue had been resolved regarding late office rent payments for the first three months of the year.

The claims by the commission come as the Formosas and Speedway Motorsports, Inc. face obstacles in their attempts to bring NASCAR back to the short track.

“To suggest that Formosa Productions breached its contract … that’s a serious allegation and I don’t believe that’s well-founded,” said Jim Roberts, the Formosa’s attorney, during the monthly Fair Board meeting on April 16.

Roberts observed that the language of the contract does not state when the concession payments are due.

“So I would submit that it’s impossible to be in breach of a contract when there are no payment schedules to find,” Roberts said.

Roberts argued concession payments would not be due until the end of the contract on March 23, 2023.

“That’s not how things are normally done, but let’s just be honest, that’s what the contract as drafted says,” Roberts said. Roberts also claimed the Formosas were not aware the concessions payments were part of the contract and that they’d never received an invoice.

“There’s been no invoicing, I think the board needs to be aware of that, no invoicing of these concessions until last week,” Roberts said, who added the Formosas asked for the invoices and received them on April 9, but that the provided invoices totaled $28,430 and not the $31,930 referenced in the April 8 letter.

The Fair Board’s letter alleged that the track broke its 7 p.m. curfew on March 27 when Kyle Busch took part in a test session for the All-America 400.

The Board claimed this violation came after a verbal warning for curfew violation on May 10 of last year. Roberts said the Formosas have no idea what event was held on that date to warrant the warning.

Regarding Busch’s test date, Roberts claimed the Formosas understood that if they received permission from the principal of a nearby school and the neighborhood association, there would be “no objection or problem” with a late track running time.

Roberts said they have a letter from the principal and the permission from the neighborhood association allowing the test.

Formosa said she had gone to the March neighborhood association meeting and was told she was cleared to go ahead with a late track rental, as long as she had the support of the school principal in the area.

Board member Jason Bergeron mentioned a series of emails from before March 27 where Formosa was told by Executive Director Laura Womack that they’d still be limited by the curfew and he noted that the principal’s permission was not part of the contract.

“She let me know and I told her ‘OK’,” Formosa said. “It was a complete miscommunication between myself and my office staff.”

With the test going beyond 8 p.m., Formosa, who was not on site, traveled to the track and shut it down by 8:17. p.m.

Bergeron said he’s heard from people in the neighborhood “that they don’t feel like they can count on that 7 o’clock curfew” when it comes to track rentals.

Formosa objected to this assertion.

“We have these monthly neighborhood meetings for this very reason,” Formosa said. “I can tell you that I never heard an issue raised by either one of the neighborhood associations. If there were issues raised, this is certainty the first time I’m hearing about them.”

K&N Series’ Jagger Jones, Don ‘Snake’ Prudhomme pair up for Baja race

Photos: Richard Shute/Auto Imagery
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Jagger Jones is going to spend Spring Break not in Daytona Beach or Fort Lauderdale – but he’ll be seeing a lot of sand nonetheless.

About 1,300 miles worth.

The 16-year-old rookie NASCAR K&N Pro Series West driver will be taking part in his second consecutive National Off-Road Racing Association 1000 off-road race (also known as the Mexican 1000) from April 28 – May 2 in Baja California, Mexico.

Sitting alongside Jones and splitting driving duties will be legendary drag racer Don “Snake” Prudhomme, who will also be competing in his second Mexican 1000.

It’s not an easy race, for sure,” Jones told NBC Sports. “It’s long, it’s five days, it’s hot, the end of April and the start of May. Don really liked being in last year’s race, but I could tell he was unsure if he was up to do it again. Then my dad and I threw out the deal where we split the race and Don was on-board with that. We both just jumped on that idea.”

MORE: Don ‘Snake’ Prudhomme pairs with Parnelli Jones’ grandson for Mexican 1000

While other teenagers may be intimidated to be paired with one of the most legendary names in motorsports, Jones isn’t. He’s used to being around iconic racers, most notably his grandfather, Parnelli Jones. And his father, P.J., is not only a noted racer himself, he also built the Polaris off-road buggy that his son and Prudhomme will drive in the 1000.

It’s really cool to be able to do a race with the one and only Snake, who has been such a legend in the drag racing community,” Jones said. “I’m only 16 years old, so I think it’s pretty awesome.

I’ve always been around the off-road scene and watched my dad do a lot of races off-road. I grew up around Robby Gordon and off-road places like Parker (Arizona), where we always go there every year and go camping. I’ve always wanted to do off-road racing. My brother and I both enjoy it. It’s a lot of fun and a lot of different than the pavement stuff. It’s really fun when you’re sideways and stuff.”

Prudhomme is looking forward to racing with Jagger.

Doing it with Jagger, he’s a young, real aggressive driver and he’s really fast,” Prudhomme said. “I couldn’t think of a better kid to be my co-driver.”

Jones is able to take part in the Mexican 1000 because the K&N Series West is on a six-week hiatus, his next race not being until May 11 in Tucson.

He’s done well in his first two K&N races, finishing runner-up in his series debut at Las Vegas (was knocked out of the lead on the final lap) and fourth at Irwindale Speedway.

Jones sits tied for third in the K&N West standings, three points behind series frontrunner Hailie Deegan.

I think we’ve had a great start to the season,” Jones said. “It was definitely a bit of a learning curve, but … so far for a rookie season, I don’t think it’s too bad of a start.”

Jones competed in last year’s Mexican 1000 with younger brother Jace. The pair were in the lead when the transmission on their off-road buggy failed, ending their hopes of a win (their father won in another class in the same race). Prudhomme finished 95th in a field of more than 150 drivers in the same event.

Much like Prudhomme feels he has unfinished business in Baja, Jones feels the same way. Now paired with the “Snake,” Jagger is ready to go for the win.

We definitely have a shot at winning,” Jones said. “It’s like an endurance race. First, you have to finish to win. That’s probably going to be our biggest goal.

We want to do good, but if we can just finish, I think we’ll wind up in a good place. If we finish, anything else is a bonus. To win would be awesome. My dad won last year, so if we could follow that up this year, it’d be super cool.”

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Michael Annett feels like ‘I belong here’ after best start of Xfinity career

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If Michael Annett‘s dog could talk.

The owner of three dogs, Annett has had Paisley, a miniature golden doodle, for 13 years.

That’s more than the entirety of his full-time NASCAR career, which began in 2009.

Along with his girlfriend at the time, Paisley was a passenger in Annett’s car in February during the seven-hour drive back from Daytona International Speedway a day after Annett scored his first career Xfinity Series win.

“She’s seen it all,” Annett told NBC Sports. “I’m sure she was pinching herself, too. It was just pretty special to have that time in the car, honestly. It wasn’t a bad thing I drove because it gave me those seven hours to really digest everything we did the day before is pretty special.”

Annett’s win locked him into the Xfinity playoffs, which he was unable to take part in last year in his second season with JR Motorsports. Annett and what was then the No. 5 team finished 16th in a season that saw Annett work with two crew chiefs for most of the campaign’s 33 races.

The second crew chief, the man who leads Annett’s No. 1 team now, was Travis Mack.

A former car chief at Hendrick Motorsports for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne’s crew chief at Leavine Family Racing, Mack joined Annett’s team after 19 races had been completed.

The change came as the series entered Annett’s worst stretch of races.

“He came in and we had three road courses (Mid-Ohio, Road America, Watkins Glen) and Bristol right away,” Annett said. “I told him leading up to it, ‘This is where I’m the worst, road courses. I’m sorry they’re throwing you to the wolves like this.'”

Annett didn’t finish better than 12th at the road courses, but he snagged a seventh-place finish at Bristol, his first top 10 through 22 races. He’d round out the season with three, including a ninth in the finale in Miami.

“We left Homestead everybody was just really pumped for February to come,” Annett said.

Annett approached the ensuing offseason differently than at any other point in his career.

“A lot of guys when you leave Homestead we kind of scatter,” Annett said. “Honestly, the whole offseason I was at the shop almost every day. Team lunches with guys, dinners with the guys. The crew chief, Travis Mack and I, working out every morning together. Just always bouncing ideas back and forth and if it wasn’t about racing it was team camaraderie and just building that relationship, wanting to make sure everyone on that 1 team’s going to hold the end of the rope for you if you’re hanging by it. That’s what you need, you gotta to have everybody bought into the same goal and I think just building that relationship and unity`has been a huge benefit for us.”

It didn’t just benefit Annett at Daytona.

After eight races, Annett is off to the best start of his NASCAR career. He has two top fives (Daytona and Las Vegas) and five top 10s, two shy of the seven total he had when he returned to Xfinity from Cup in 2017.

“Going to Atlanta and being fast in practice, didn’t have the best race, finished 12th. Last year at that point, man, we’d be high-fiving for a 12th,” Annett said. “Just continued to grow and it’s still continuing to grow. We’re not even close to where we want to be right now.”

Annett’s performance in 2018 came back to bite him early in the season when two of the first three races had qualifying rained out. That caused the field to be established by last year’s owner points. He started 16th at Atlanta and Las Vegas.

As a result Annett missed out on getting more stage points than he thought he was capable of.

“That put us in a pretty big hole right away,” Annett said. “But even those races, honestly is when we got the most (12 total). It’s hard to say. I’m not a genie or anything, but I feel like we’d have more bonus points at this point, but I still feel like those were some of our best races for some reason.”

With his Daytona win and being locked into the playoffs, Annett’s team has taken gambles he’s never been able to, like staying out on old tires in the middle of Stage 1 at Richmond. It didn’t work out and Annett finished the race in 13th.

“It took a little bit (of adjusting) just because I was hungry for those top fives and when you don’t have a top-five car you know if it doesn’t work out you’re going to be outside the top 10,” Annett said. “That part’s been tough. Really had to get in my head and figure out what’s going to help us go through rounds in the playoffs. Once I really got that in my head it was easy.”

What has Annett learned about himself as a driver in the months since Mack was brought on board?

“I think that just that I belong here,” Annett said. “At some point you beat yourself down long enough you start to wonder if you remember how to drive a race car or if you belong. But once you start to show that consistency and you’re passing cars that you know that could have a chance to win a race and you’re driving by them, it’s moments like that. When you’re driving past race-winning cars that’s when you start to get that confidence and ‘Yeah, you still remember how to do this.'”