Jimmie Johnson won his record-tying seventh NASCAR championship Sunday with a familiar figure by his side – crew chief Chad Knaus. The two have been together for each of Johnson’s titles in Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 48 Chevy.
Knaus, who is one title shy of tying Dale Inman’s NASCAR record of eight titles for a crew chief, talked about this championship and what makes Johnson so special at what he does.
What was the difference Sunday, when you had a car that didn’t appear to be the fastest on the track?
I hate to be this blunt, but it’s Jimmie Johnson. He is probably the most underrated champion in this sport. He is a fantastic individual, an amazing race car driver. Most people in the situation we were in would crumble, and he didn’t even waver. He knew what he needed to do. He knew what the demands were on him at that point in time, and he made it happen.
We’ve got a great team. We’ve got a great owner. Everything at Hendrick Motorsports is fantastic. But the real spark in this whole thing is Jimmie.
What made your team so special this season?
I think the strength of this team is being able to look adversity in the eye and just deal with it. If you look at us throughout the course of our career, we’ve had crashes, we’ve had engine failures. We’ve had poor qualifying efforts. We’ve had things happen throughout the course of the race that we’ve been able to come back and win through.
This team is solid from the standpoint that we might get wavered, we might get shaken, we might get knocked back on our heels, but then we bounce back and we start jabbing right back, and that’s the way we’ve rolled, and we’re going to continue to work that way until we’re done.
How did Jimmie adapt to the changes you made to the car during the race and how did he react to you about them?
There’s not one of us that can say we have any idea what goes through these guys’ minds as they’re out there racing these cars at 200 mph. When they’re in that situation and they start to clam up, the best thing you can do is try to be their friend and try to make them realize that, hey, we’re going to make it better, we’re going to go forward. Sometimes I do that well, other times I don’t. But maybe (Sunday) I did it right.
Is it tough to make race-changing decisions on the fly?
We probably are better at it now than what we once were. A lot of it comes from security and comfort. I know that he believes in me, he knows that I believe in him. We know that we’re not in fear of our jobs. We know that we’ve been able to win championships and win races. We’ve made our mark.
What happens from this point is the toppings on the ice cream. So there’s a lot of comfort in that, and there’s a lot of guys out there right now, they don’t have that comfort. The one thing that helps us the most is we know we’re committed to one another, we’re committed to this team, we’re committed to this organization, and we’re going to trudge through no matter what the situation is.
After winning two early races, your team went through a slump during the summer. How did you deal with that?
It was pretty bleak at that point. It wasn’t looking good. I still don’t think we necessarily had the speed that we need week in and week out. The one thing that we have in our corner is we have Jimmie Johnson. He is the one that makes things happen when we don’t necessarily have the race cars. When we do have the race cars that we need, he does phenomenal things.
How has your relationship with Jimmie evolved over the years?
I love him like a brother. He’s a fantastic individual. Jimmie has taught me more about life than life itself has taught me. He’s taught me about family. He’s taught me about relationships. He’s taught me about being a champion. When we started this thing, I was just a racer guy, and he was a cool California kid, and we kind of grew up together. To be in this situation to where we know he’s got a handful of years left, whatever they may be, and for Jimmie and Mr. Hendrick to want me to stick with the 48 car and be at the helm of this ship, man, it’s flattering. I’m getting older just like everybody else is. None of us is as young as we once were, and I look forward to the future with these guys.
Compare Jimmie Johnson, 2013 champion, to Jimmie Johnson, 2016 champion.
He is definitely a lot more mature. He’s always been great. He’s always been California cool. But he is in a spot right now to where he is so comfortable and willing to go out there and make things happen that most should be pretty scared, honestly. He’s too comfortable in his shoes, man. He’s pretty spectacular.
How does this title stack up to the others?
It’s definitely the sweetest. How is it not the sweetest? The first was awesome. How much more can I use these words: awesome, terrific, fantastic. To go through a bit of a lull, not make the (championship round), not be able to come down here and compete for two years straight, that is so difficult. It’s not like we just only decided to work hard once in a while. To be able to put Jimmie’s name in that same header as Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Richard Petty, it’s an honor to be a part of it. I’m just glad to be his buddy and be by his side.