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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Hendrick Motorsports splitting Chad Knaus, Jimmie Johnson after 2018 season

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Hendrick Motorsports will split one of the most successful driver-crew chief combinations in the sport’s history after this season.

The organization announced Wednesday that Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson, who have been together since 2002 and won a record-tying seven championships, will not work together in 2019.

Knaus will be William Byron‘s crew chief next year.

MORE: A look at where things stand in Silly Season

MORE: NBC analysts debate who wins an 8th title first: Jimmie or Chad?

Johnson will have Kevin Meendering as his crew chief in 2019. Meendering is serving as Elliott Sadler‘s crew chief in the Xfinity Series this season at JR Motorsports.

Darian Grubb, who is Byron’s crew chief this season, will be promoted to technical director at Hendrick Motorsports.

“Chad and Jimmie will go down as one of the greatest combinations in sports history,” Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick said in a statement. “They defied the odds by performing at a championship level for longer than anyone could’ve possibly imagined. What they’ve accomplished together has been absolutely remarkable and will be celebrated for generations. This has been an incredible, storybook run.

“It’s no secret that Chad and Jimmie have experienced their ups and downs over the years. “They’re fierce competitors, great friends and have immense respect for one another. They also fight like brothers. All three of us agree it’s finally time for new challenges and that a change will benefit them and the organization.”

Knaus and Johnson have been together 17 seasons, the longest active streak. Brad Keselowski and Paul Wolfe are the next longest driver-crew chief combination at eight years.

Johnson enters Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega SuperSpeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC) on a career-long 53-race winless streak.

[More: Johnson plays joke on No. 78 team with special gifts]

Since last season, Johnson has three wins, six top-five finishes and 21 top-10 finishes in 66 starts. That is the worst two-year period for Johnson and Knaus in their time together.

In their time together, they won one Daytona 500 (Johnson won a second while Knaus was suspended), two Southern 500s, four Brickyard 400s and four Coca-Cola 600s.

Pairing Meendering with Johnson next year brings Meendering back to Hendrick Motorsports. Meendering spent 16 years with the organization, becoming the lead engineer for Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s team in 2011. Meendering has spent the past three seasons as Sadler’s crew chief in the Xfinity Series, leading Sadler to three wins and 38 top-five finishes.

On pairing Knaus with Byron, Hendrick said: “You can’t quantify how much Chad’s leadership and championship experience will benefit William, who is a special talent. The two of them are a great match, and I’m excited to see what they can do together. 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.”

Long: Kasey Kahne’s exit robs NASCAR fans of one last cheer for their driver

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The end was coming. Kasey Kahne foretold that when he said in August this would be his last full-time season in NASCAR.

But Tuesday’s announcement that Kahne has not been medically cleared to run the rest of the Cup season ends a career that began with such allure and promise that some of his memorabilia had to be flown in from overseas to satisfy demand.

A career that should be celebrated ends muted and abbreviated. His time in NASCAR will be recalled as not working out the way it was supposed to — from the courtroom drama over where he would race in Cup as a rookie to near-misses on the track, changing rides, being lent to a team and his departure from the series.

It has been quite a journey.

Even before he competed in his first Cup race, two manufacturers signed him. A federal court settled the matter.  He could drive for Ray Evernham’s Dodge team

When Kahne finished second in two of his first three Cup races in 2004 (he lost at Rockingham to Matt Kenseth by one-hundredth of a second), his popularity soared. Crowds left little in his souvenir hauler. One company flew his die-cast cars from China — instead of shipping them by boat.

With penetrating blue eyes, he became one of NASCAR’s heartthrobs. Kahne was selected to People magazine’s “America’s Top 50 Bachelors” at the height of NASCAR’s popularity in the mid-2000s and had women fawn over him in those Allstate commercials.

His support grew as he came close to winning but didn’t his rookie season. Newer fans might call that a Kyle Larson-type season, noting how close Larson came to winning as a rookie without doing so.

Kahne scored his first Cup win in May 2005 at Richmond. He held off Tony Stewart in the closing laps, a point Stewart noted when he congratulated Kahne.

“I just told Kasey that down the road when they talk about his first win that I got the honor of being the guy they mentioned that he had to race for the win,” Stewart said that night.

The victories came more often. Kahne won a season-high six races in 2006, including the Coca-Cola 600 for the first of three times.

He was so popular that he replaced Dale Earnhardt Jr. as Budweiser’s driver after Earnhardt moved from Dale Earnhardt Inc. to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008. While Kahne did not have the party reputation Earnhardt had, Kahne’s youth and good looks matched the image Budweiser sought to promote.

Kahne’s win at Sonoma in 2009 for Richard Petty Motorsports marked Petty’s first time in Victory Lane as an owner in a decade.

Kahne had so much promise that car owner Rick Hendrick signed him in 2010 even though Hendrick did not have a ride available until the 2012 season. Kahne spent that in-between year with Red Bull Racing and won a race.

In his first season at Hendrick, Kahne finished a career-high fourth in the standings. It would be the high point of his six years there. Kahne won six races for the organization, including last year’s Brickyard 400 that ended a 102-race winless streak.

“I’m going to treasure this forever,’’ Kahne told NBC Sports after the win.

But that race foreshadowed the problems that plagued Kahne this season. Kahne battled severe cramping and went to the infield care center for IV fluids before he completed his duties as winner that day.

Those issues worsened this year. Darlington proved almost too much. Kahne said “it was really hard to keep my eyes open and see” during the last 100 laps of the Southern 500 as he battled extreme dehydration. 

“I was trying to control my heart rate because it was so high,” he said. “I basically just kind of laid in the car and drove around the corners. At that point all I’m doing is focusing on my body and my health, not on what I should be actually focusing on, and that’s racing.”

He tested last week at Charlotte Motor Speedway and in less than two hours of track time could not ease doctor concerns he’d be well enough to run any Cup race this year.

So, any farewell fans wished to have these final weeks of the season will have to take place on social media or a dirt track where Kahne will race his sprint car.

That might be the best place to appreciate Kahne — back in the type of racing that led him to NASCAR, his car sliding through the corners with a rooster tail of dirt trailing.

Hooters extends sponsorship of Chase Elliott’s team

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Hendrick Motorsports announced Friday that Hooters has extended its primary sponsorship of Chase Elliott for three years.

Hooters will be the primary sponsor of Elliott’s No. 9 team for three Cup races each season from 2019-21. The company joined Hendrick Motorsports as a two-race primary sponsor of Elliott in January 2017.

“Hooters is doing a terrific job with its program,” said Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports, in a statement. “With Chase, they’re driving new traffic into their stores and earning the loyalty of those customers by providing a great experience. We’ve enjoyed their collaborative approach and look forward to more opportunities to move the needle for their business.”

Rick Hendrick reflects on ‘toughest year’ in ‘a long, long time’

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Somehow, someway Hendrick Motorsports put three of its four drivers in the Cup playoffs.

The team will be represented by Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott and newcomer Alex Bowman in at least the first round, which begins Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

The regular season ended with only Elliott locked in with a victory and Johnson and Bowman the last drivers in on points. Johnson enters the playoffs in the midst of the longest winless streak of his career (49 races).

The organization, which owns 12 championships and 250 wins, enters the 10-race playoff with just one win this season and since last year’s Brickyard 400, which was won by Kasey Kahne in July.

That adds up to arguably one of the worst seasons in its history, which began in 1984.

Just ask owner Rick Hendrick.

“It’s probably been the toughest year that I’ve experienced in a long, long time,” Hendrick said Thursday morning on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive.” “Without race wins, without leading races.”

Since 1984 (three wins), Hendrick’s worst seasons win wise have been 1985 (none), 1987 (three), 1988 (four), 1990 (one), 1991 (three), 1992-93 (one each) and 2000 and 2017 (four each).

The current four-car team, which includes rookie William Byron, has 12 top fives, 34 top 10s and has led only 372 of 67,611 laps through the first 26 races.

Hendrick attributes those struggles in part to a confluence of changes for the team and the sport this season.

“I think I take a lot of the blame there,” Hendrick said. “We underestimated the amount of effort and the distraction it was when we decided to build this team center and put all the engineers and all the crew chiefs together.”

Before this year, HMS split its four teams into two different shops at its Concord, North Carolina, campus.

“It’s the right thing to do and we did it in the offseason,” Hendrick said. “But it spilled over a little bit into the start of the season.”

That change merged with the addition of Bowman and Byron to the full-time driver stable as the team transitioned to the Chevrolet Camaro. The new model has visited Victory Lane twice this season, with Austin Dillon in the Daytona 500 and Elliott at Watkins Glen.

“We underestimated the work that we needed to do with the new car,” Hendrick admitted. “We were late getting the Hawkeye (OSS inspection system) installed at our shop. I look back and it was just too many changes, too many things. We just got behind.”

Hendrick said “if it could go wrong with us this year, it’s gone wrong at different times,” but that he “can see the momentum coming.”

“With the 48 (Johnson), I think they just were affected as much as anyone with all the changes and we’ve not been able to get back to our stride,” Hendrick said. “Chase getting a win really lifted the whole organization and when we had those good runs at Bristol (Elliott placed third and Johnson eighth), everything that gave us a little momentum has felt good. We just got to finish it off.”

Elliott enters the playoffs off a 15th-place finish at Indianapolis. That was his first finish outside the top 10 in six races. He leads the team with eight top fives and 14 top 10s.

Johnson, who is seeking his eighth championship, has two top fives and eight top 10s. Bowman has two top fives and nine top 10s.

“I’ve had some years where we peaked early, but we haven’t come close to peaking this year,” Hendrick said. “We’ve been playing catchup and we still got work to do. We’re not where we want to be, but we’re getting better.”

Hendrick was asked about his confidence level in Johnson being able to earn a record eighth title

“In ’16, I didn’t think we had a shot and we won it,” Hendrick said. “Anything’s possible. We’ve got some good tracks for us coming up. It’s not like one of those years where I thought it was ours to lose for sure. Things have got to go our way. We’ve got to be lucky in some cases and we’ve got to keep improving. I’ve seen this before. Anything can happen. You just got to show up and show up with your game face on and get it done.”