Despite the calls from Rick Hendrick and questions from reporters that started before the beginning of his final full-time season, NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson has offered the same line throughout 2020 to the skeptics wondering, “Are you sure?”
Johnson is sticking by his retirement plans through the pandemic year that included a positive COVID-19 test, missed race and mostly fanless events. Johnson is sure, he’s repeatedly said, and is slated to run a part-time IndyCar schedule with Chip Ganassi Racing next season.
“For me and the experience I went through to get to that point to make the announcement that I did last fall,” Johnson said during an hour-long special on FS1 Thursday honoring the seven-time Cup Series champion. “I cleared that hurdle.”
Johnson’s exit from Hendrick Motorsports will be timed with the promotion of his longtime crew chief Chad Knaus, who will transition to the role of vice president of competition for the company after the season. Knaus, who is the crew chief for the No. 24 car after 17 seasons and seven championships with Johnson and the No. 48 team, said the next move was something he’d considered for a long time.
He said the opportunity to spend more time with his family, following the birth of his second child this summer, was part of the appeal in accepting the executive job.
As the duo of dads prioritizes family life, Hendrick Motorsports is left looking young. The average age of Hendrick’s three known drivers next season — Chase Elliott, William Byron and Alex Bowman — is nine years younger than the combined average age of the 2021 drivers on the rest of the “Big Four” teams of Stewart-Haas Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske.
While Hendrick crew chief Alan Gustafson, who works with Elliott and the No. 9 team, has 16 years of Cup crew chiefing experience, Greg Ives (crew chief for Bowman) and Cliff Daniels (crew chief for Johnson) have a combined eight years of experience at NASCAR’s highest level. Knaus said it would be “foolish” not to think that the end of the season, and the changes that brings, marks the end of the old and the start of a new era for Hendrick Motorsports.
“We’ve got a lot of youth here that we can build upon,” Knaus said. “And I think that’s exciting.”
Knaus, much like Johnson, is modest about his legacy in the sport. He ascended through the ranks of HMS to become the winningest playoff crew chief in NASCAR history with 29 wins, almost three times more than any other crew chief, and guided 22-year-old Byron to his first victory in the Cup Series in August.
He responded to a question about what he has taught Johnson during their storied careers by first complimenting the driver: “He creates a goal and he attacks it,” Knaus said, adding that if there is one thing he has taught Johnson it’s that “you need leadership.”
“You need structure. You need guidance. And you need somebody to keep the heat on you,” Knaus said.
But that leadership quality, in terms of both career achievements on the racetrack and comportment off of it, has also been reflected in Johnson, and Knaus noted the driver’s irreplaceable qualities in the organization.
“Inevitably, as he walks away, a part of that goes away with him, right?” Knaus said. “That’s gonna be a void.”
He said the organization is working to fill the gap with drivers it feels can “carry the torch” for an organization that has gone on historic championship winning runs with drivers like Johnson and Jeff Gordon.
“We’re going to have that void for a little bit,” Knaus said. “But I think Chase is doing a fantastic job. You look at the performance of that 88 car. Alex Bowman is doing a fantastic job. William is coming along super strong.”
Bowman and Elliott are still in playoff contention in the Round of 8, although neither driver has made it to the Championship 4 race before. Elliott is coming off his fourth consecutive road course win with Sunday’s victory at the Charlotte Roval and is looking to make it his year to break through to the final show.
“When we’ve been at our best and we’re all, as a team, me included, performing at the level that we’re all capable of doing, I feel like we’ve contended with the best of the series this year,” Elliott said, adding that he thinks the team is “capable of doing that again.”
Bowman made it very clear that his transition to the No. 48 car from the No. 88 next season doesn’t mean he’ll replicate Johnson: “I don’t want to be Jimmie,” Bowman said.
“I want to win seven championships and do all the great things that he did,” Bowman said. “But I’m my own person so I’m just going to approach it like another race car.”
While Elliott has the most wins after Johnson of Hendrick’s current drivers, and some expect him to “carry the torch,” his rhetoric was in line with what Bowman expressed. Johnson’s shoes are too big to fill, and Elliott said he isn’t trying to do that.
“From a leadership perspective and trying to fill that role, I don’t know that I’m going to be very productive in trying to be him or fill that,” Elliott said. “I think the best thing I can do is be myself.”
But Elliott being himself could spark a very productive year for the team as it enters 2021, in which NASCAR will implement a road course-heavy schedule. There are many upcoming changes the organization will navigate, including internal personnel moves, coordinating engine R&D with Richard Childress Racing and Chevrolet, naming another driver to pilot the No. 88 and the eventual shift to Next Gen for 2022. But next year’s schedule could help make the new era a successful one.
Excluding Johnson, Hendrick’s drivers have 12 wins between Elliott (nine), Bowman (two) and Byron (one) and as former Hendrick crew chief and NBC’s NASCAR analyst Steve Letarte noted, “While they’re young on age, they’re not young on starts.”
“With the schedule change — six road courses next year, a bunch of new tracks, Nashville, COTA, the list is long — I think that sometimes a fresh approach, a little bit of youth can be an advantage if managed correctly,” Letarte said.
If Elliott continues demonstrating his road-course prowess, and Bowman hits a breakthrough as Byron keeps developing, all while navigating the changes of NASCAR’s next years, the 20-somethings won’t need Johnson’s same experience and leadership style to match his success in the next Hendrick era.
Knaus is aware of his role in helping the young drivers develop, but he said he’s comfortable relinquishing the reigns for the next wave.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for me to ride on the coattails of these guys as they’re going out there winning races,” Knaus said. “And hopefully I can look like I helped a little bit.”