Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan, Red Auerbach and Bill Russell, and on and on the list of the best coach and athlete duos in sports history goes.
For NASCAR, the dynamic may be slightly different, but the crew chief and driver relationship is just as important — if not more so — than in other sports.
And the most dynamic duo in NASCAR history will be reuniting once again this weekend to try and conquer the sports car world.
Everyone who is even a casual NASCAR fan knows the name Jimmie Johnson.
For more than a decade between 2006 and 2016, he dominated the sport in a way no other driver — and really, no other athlete in any sport — ever has, winning an untouchable record of five consecutive championships from 2006 to 2010, and a record seven total championships.
What’s not talked about enough, though — even by the sport’s most ardent fans — is the man who sat atop the pit box for that entire run, leading the effort to engineer the cars and making the in-race strategy calls that ultimately helped maximize Johnson’s unworldly talent in every possible way — crew chief Chad Knaus.
No crew chief and driver have come close to dominating the modern era of the sport — from 1972 to the present — in the manner in which Knaus and Johnson did.
The closest any other crew chief and driver duo has come to the level Johnson and Knaus achieved was Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Kirk Shelmerdine, who won four championships in six seasons from 1986 to 1991.
Essentially, the only equivalent in sports in general would be to take Brady and Belichick and put them on steroids, as it took Brady and Belichick almost two decades to win six championships, while Johnson and Knaus won seven in just 11 years.
But of course, all good things must eventually come to an end, and after the 2018 season, Hendrick Motorsports made the decision to separate Johnson and Knaus, with Knaus moving over to mentor up and coming talent William Byron, before both Johnson and Knaus decided to step away from their respective roles for new challenges after the 2020 season.
Johnson went on to enjoy his retirement from full-time competition by competing in IndyCar part-time while Knaus took on the role of Vice President of Competition at Hendrick Motorsports, where he now oversees the four Hendrick teams that have absolutely dominated the Cup Series this season, winning the past five races in a row.
However, like most great love stories, Johnson and Knaus just couldn’t quit one another.
Earlier this season, Johnson decided his first act of his retirement would be to compete in the most historic endurance race in American motorsports, the 24 Hours of Daytona.
In a joint effort between three-time IMSA champions Action Express Racing and Hendrick Motorsports, an all-star team of Johnson, former Formula 1 driver — and possibly the best active endurance racer on the planet — Kamui Kobayashi, and 2016 IndyCar champion and Indianapolis 500 winner Simon Pagenaud was assembled.
To add to that all-star lineup, Knaus was brought in to lend his engineering, race strategy, and pit stop coaching expertise to help lead this one-off effort to a historic win.
But after coming up just short with a second place finish at Daytona, the team decided that they wanted to go for more, and would run the remaining three races in the IMSA Endurance Cup this year.
They followed up Daytona by running the 12 Hours of Sebring in March, although it didn’t go as smoothly the second time around, as a late race penalty took them out of contention for at least a podium finish.
Now, Johnson and Knaus are again reuniting, as the duo will again team up alongside Kobayashi and Pagenaud to run this weekend’s 6 Hours of The Glen at Watkins Glen International.
And the dynamic duo couldn’t be more excited to hit the track together again.
“What was required of him as a crew chief in the Cup Series just took so much time, and he tried to watch other forms of motorsport from afar and certainly has a love for sports car racing,” Johnson said. “He’s always asked me a lot of questions about the (IMSA) experiences I’ve had. He is really excited to be here, as am I excited to have him.”
While Knaus is obviously a brilliant racing mind, and will always have contributions to make to any team he’s a part of, he did admit that his responsibilities with Hendrick’s Cup Series operations will cause his role at Watkins Glen to be smaller than it was in the previous endurance races the pair has run.
“My involvement in Daytona and Sebring was pretty high. Unfortunately on the Cup side, I’ve been really, really busy recently,” Knaus admitted. “So we’re going to discuss what my job description is going to be when we get to Watkins Glen, and I hope that I can contribute. But it’s a lot of fun when you’ve got a driver from France, a driver from Japan, a driver from El Cajon. You’ve got a race engineer that’s Scottish. It’s just a completely different vibe.”
No matter what his role may ultimately be, there’s no doubt Knaus will play a vital role in the team’s success, and he couldn’t be more excited to work with all the drivers from such diverse backgrounds.
“The thing I’ve enjoyed the most about it is a racer from any other continent is still a racer,” Knaus said. “We’re there for one thing, and that’s to extract as much speed out of any race car that we possibly can.”
“You talk to some of these guys that are cultured and cured endurance racers — their mindset is way different than these Cup drivers I’ve dealt with my whole career,” Knaus continued. “They’re very raw. They’re very aggressive. It’s just a different, different mindset, so it’s pretty fun.”
Obviously, when they began this journey in Daytona back in January, Johnson and Knaus had one goal in mind — to win.
They haven’t got there yet, and with the 6 Hours of The Glen and the Petit Le Mans being the only two races left on their endurance schedule, time is running out for them to get that elusive victory.
But if Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus have proven anything as a duo over the years, it’s that it’s best to never bet against them.
Sports with Balls will keep you up-to-date on any developments to this ongoing story.