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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NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Watkins Glen overview, Ray Evernham visit

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NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET today on NBCSN.

Carolyn Manno hosts and is joined by Parker Kligerman and Landon Cassill.

Ray Evernham will be on today’s show to talk about his new series Glory Road, which features episodes after NASCAR America at 6 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. ET.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Bubba Wallace’s crash shows how far NASCAR safety has come

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Twenty years ago, NASCAR had no research and development center, the SAFER barrier had not been installed at tracks and drivers raced in seats that look rudimentary compared to today’s cocoons.

That Bubba Wallace walked away from his vicious impact Sunday at Pocono Raceway reinforces how far safety has come in NASCAR since the late 1990s and also how the job of safety is never-ending.

The brakes on Wallace’s car failed as headed toward Turn 1 late in the race. He turned left, went through the grass and came back up the track, slamming into the SAFER barrier on the right side.

“Hardest one of my career,” Wallace told NBCSN after exiting the infield care center. “I was just telling them that there’s no feeling like being helpless in that situation. It scared the hell out of me. I didn’t know if I was going to remember when I hit or not. We’re good. Bit my cheek. Banged my foot off the pedal. I’ll wake up (Monday) and be a little sore. Safety has come a long ways. It’s good to be able to climb out of the car.”

Safety has indeed come a long way.

In 1999, two-time Busch Series champion Randy LaJoie had developed a new seat that supported drivers around their shoulders instead of rib cages. Ray Evernham, then crew chief for Jeff Gordon, had talked to doctors about developing a new protective seat.

In March 1999, Gordon bruised his ribs in a crash at Texas Motor Speedway. Check out the video below of the CBS broadcast for the rare glimpse of a driver’s reactions before safety crews arrived and the pain Gordon was in. Also note how there is little protection from the seat on the right side of Gordon’s head (unlike today’s seats that wrap around a driver’s head to better protect it).

That’s just among the major changes in driver safety. Here are some others:

Back then drivers had a five-point safety belt. Today they use a seven-point safety belt that keeps them more snug in the seat.

Composite seats are now used to better protect drivers.

Cars have had incident data recorders to help NASCAR officials and safety experts analyze crashes and understand the impacts to provide new safety elements.

SAFER barriers are used at every track. Indianapolis Motor Speedway first installed the SAFER barrier in May 2002. By 2006, every oval track that hosted NASCAR Cup races had SAFER barrier sections. In 2015, Bristol Motor Speedway became the first Cup oval to have all of its outside wall protected by the SAFER barrier.

Foam is inside the driver’s door to absorb energy in an impact to help protect the driver.

Head-and-neck restraints are mandatory. Once tried years earlier but without much support from drivers, the HANS was reintroduced to NASCAR in July 2000 when Brett Bodine became the first driver to race with the device, doing so at Pocono. He used it just months after the deaths of Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin that season. NASCAR mandated a head-and-neck restraint for drivers in its top three series in Oct. 2001.

“All the initiatives that have been put in place over the years with safety of the cars, the seats, the SAFER barriers and all the things are really, really paying dividends in situations like that,” Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio on Monday morning about Wallace not suffering a serious injury in his Pocono crash.

The latest safety initiative for NASCAR is a high-speed camera inside the car pointed at the driver to allow officials to better examine in minute detail what a driver goes through in a crash, particularly a hard impact such as Wallace’s at Pocono.

“One thing that is interesting is we have initiated the use of a high-speed camera to further investigate the big hits so that we can potentially lead to some more safety initiatives,” Miller said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “So this will be the first time we’ve had a big crash with this new potential analysis of the crash. I know the teams are interested in seeing that and seeing if there is any learnings from it.”

Comparing Cole Pearn, Martin Truex Jr.’s record together to NASCAR greats

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Martin Truex Jr and Cole Pearn have a good thing going.

Truex’s win Sunday at Sonoma Raceway came in his 123rd start with Pearn serving as his crew chief.

The two have had an eventful tenure in their four years together at Furniture Row Racing.

Since teaming up in the No. 78 Toyota in 2015, Truex’s second year with the team, the duo has scored 16 wins, 45 top fives, 75 top 10s and an all important championship last season.

How does their record so far compare to the first 123 races of other notable driver-crew chief pairings in NASCAR history?

Racing Insights compiled the info of nine pairings, including Truex/Pearn and Kyle Busch/Adam Stevens, who have 119 starts together. They would have 130 starts together if not for Busch missing 11 races in 2015 due to injury.

Truex and Pearn would have 124 starts together if not for a one-race suspension for Pearn in 2015.

The data includes five active pairings: Pearn/Truex, Stevens/Busch, Chad Knaus/Jimmie Johnson, Rodney Childers/Kevin Harvick and Paul Wolfe/Brad Keselowski.

Among the nine pairings, the best is Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Hammond, who had two championships, 28 wins, 75 top fives and 91 top 10s in their first 123 races together.

The most comparable pairing to Truex/Pearn is Knaus/Johnson.

After 123 starts, they’re tied for 16 wins and 75 top 10s. While the Hendrick Motorsports pairing had two more top fives, Truex and Pearn earned their first championship faster.

Johnson and Knaus earned their first title in their fifth year together when they reached 176 starts together.

Check out the info below.

Pairing       Starts     Wins Top 5s   Top 10s Titles
Jeff Hammond/Darrell Waltrip 123 28 75 91 2
Cole Pearn/Martin Truex Jr. 123 16 45 75 1
*Adam Stevens/Kyle Busch 119 18 54 74 1
Rodney Childers/Kevin Harvick 123 13 59 84 1
Chad Knaus/Jimmie Johnson 123 16 47 75 0
Ray Evernham/Jeff Gordon 123 19 51 71 1
Kirk Shelmerdine/Dale Earnhardt 123 22 59 89 1 – Secured 2nd title in 125th start
Greg Zipadelli/Tony Stewart 123 14 47 76 0
Paul Wolfe/Brad Keselowski 123 11 39 61 1
 

*Only 119 starts together

Jeff Gordon leads 2019 Hall of Fame Class

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Jeff Gordon, the four-time Cup champion who ushered in a new era of NASCAR on and off the track and opened a pathway for younger drivers to the premier series, was selected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s Class of 2019 on Wednesday.

The 46-year-old Gordon is the youngest inductee among the 10 Hall of Fame classes.

Joining Gordon in the Class of 2019 are: Jack Roush, Roger Penske, Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki.

Gordon was selected on 96 percent of the ballots — surpassing the record of being on 94 percent of the ballot shared by David Pearson (Class of 2011) and Robert Yates (Class of 2018).

Roush was selected on 70 percent of the ballots, Penske was on 68 percent, Allison was on 63 percent and Kulwicki was on 46 percent.

They will be inducted Feb 1, 2019.

The next three top vote-getters were Buddy Baker, Hershel McGriff and Waddell Wilson.

A total of 57 ballots were cast — 56 by Hall of Fame voting members and one online fan ballot. The fan ballot had Allison, Gordon, Kulwicki, Baker and Harry Gant.

Jim Hunter was selected as the Landmark Award winner for his contributions to NASCAR as a media member, p.r. person, track operator and NASCAR official.

Gordon’s selection marks the third consecutive class that features a member of Hendrick Motorsports. Car owner Rick Hendrick was selected to the Class of 2017. Ray Evernham, Gordon’s crew chief for three of his titles, was voted to the Class of 2018. 

“I think it tells you a lot about that combination, what Rick created in his organization and the people,” Gordon said. “When Ray and I came to work, Ray told me all the resources are there, this could be something really special. It obviously ended up being way more than we ever anticipated. Those two are like family to me. To be able to follow them is very, very, very special. … Besides my parents, I owe those two everything to how they contributed to my life in more than just racing.”

Gordon’s success made car owners more open to hiring young drivers. Gordon also opened a pipeline from Midwest sprint car racing that helped future Hall of Famer Tony Stewart, among others, move to NASCAR.

Gordon’s influence goes beyond the track. He introduced NASCAR to mainstream America in the 1990s when he dominated, winning Cup titles in 1995, ’97 and ’98. Gordon appeared in national ads that weren’t just during NASCAR races and was the first — and only — NASCAR driver to host Saturday Night Live.

Gordon won 47 of his 93 career Cp wins between 1995-99. The driver dubbed “Wonder Boy” early in his career by Dale Earnhardt won his fourth title in 2001 — the year Earnhardt died in a last-lap crash in the Daytona 500. Gordon won three Daytona 500s, five Southern 500s and five Brickyard 400s.

Off the track, Gordon displayed class and poise throughout his career. He also displayed emotions. Gordon cried when he won his first points race, the 1994 Coca-Cola 600. He celebrated what was his final Cup win in November 2015 at Martinsville by bouncing, hooting and shouting “We’re going to Homestead!”

With Gordon’s selection the top five all-time winners in Cup will be in the Hall of Fame — Richard Petty, David Pearson, Bobby Allison, Darrell Waltrip and Gordon.

Kulwicki, the 1992 Cup champion, joins the Hall of Fame after coming close the past two years. He was among the top three vote getters not selected to the Class of 2016. He was tied with Ron Hornaday Jr. for the last spot in the Class of 2017. Both were selected on 38 percent of the ballots and Hornaday was selected in a second vote.

Kulwicki is revered for his underdog run to the ’92 title where he beat Bill Elliott by 10 points as a driver/owner. Kulwicki won five career Cup races before he was killed in a plane crash in 1993 on the way to Bristol Motor Speedway from a sponsor appearance.

Allison won 19 races, including the 1992 Daytona 500. He also was the 1987 Rookie of the Year and finished second to his father in the 1988 Daytona 500.

Allison was a fan favorite for his personality and persistence. Three months after Kulwicki died in a plane crash, Allison died from injures suffered in a helicopter crash at Talladega Superspeedway.

Roush, whose name has been synonymous with success for most of his Cup career, joined the premier series in 1988 with Hall of Famer Mark Martin.

Roush, who has scored a record 325 victories across NASCAR’s national series, won his first Cup title in 2003 with Matt Kenseth and won the 2004 crown with Kurt Busch. Roush has five Xfinity championships and one Camping World Truck Series title.

Penske is better known for his success in IndyCar, including his 16 Indianapolis 500 victories as a car owner, but he’s also made an impact in NASCAR.

Penske won the 2012 Cup title with Brad Keselowski and has two Daytona 500 victories. He also built Auto Club Speedway and once owned Michigan International Speedway and North Carolina Motor Speedway. In Team Penske’s 52-year history, it has 489 major race wins across all series and 553 poles. Included are wins in IndyCar, NASCAR, Formula 1 and the 24 Hours of Daytona.

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