TALLADEGA, Ala. – Almost from the day he arrived at Hendrick Motorsports 25 years ago, Chad Knaus had a specific ambition: He wanted to be crew chief on Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet.
Only one problem: Ray Evernham had the job. So Knaus began his association with the No. 24 team as a fabricator. He also changed rear tires for Gordon as an original member of the vaunted Rainbow Warriors pit crew and was part of Gordon’s championship teams in 1995 and 1997.
After subsequent stints with Dale Earnhardt Inc., Tyler Jet Motorsports and Melling Racing, Knaus returned to Hendrick in 2002 as crew chief for a largely untested rookie named Jimmie Johnson.
In the 17 years that have followed, Johnson has won 83 races — most among active drivers — and a record-tying seven Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championships under a variety of postseason formats. The five straight titles accumulated by Johnson and Knaus from 2006 through 2010 likely constitute an unassailable mark.
At the end of the 2018 season, however, the partnership between Johnson and Knaus will end. Johnson will get a new crew chief — Kevin Meendering. Knaus will finally a get his shot as crew chief of the No. 24 Chevrolet, but not with Gordon, who has left the driver’s seat for the TV booth.
Knaus will call the shots for William Byron, a 20-year-old Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender this season. Byron’s current crew chief, Darian Grubb, has been promoted to an executive position in the competition end of the Hendrick organization.
“It’s exciting for me — it really is,” Knaus said. “I’m an old racer guy, but I’m totally geeked to be crew chief on the No. 24 car. I’m not lying when I said that, when I started here, I was like, ‘Man, I want to be crew chief on that No. 24 car.’
“I always wanted to be Jeff Gordon’s crew chief. I didn’t make that happen, but I (will be) at least crew chief for his team and for his car number.”
Knaus ticked off similarities between Gordon’s situation in 1993 and Byron’s next year.
“We had sponsor DuPont (NYSE:) which is now Axalta on the No. 24 car back then,” Knaus said. “I’m going to the No. 24 car with Axalta, which was DuPont. Jeff was 21 years old. William’s going to be 21 years old next year.
“It’s a really neat thing. I’m stoked. I really am. I’m sad that this chapter (with Johnson) is… It’s not over. I mean you can’t, what people think, ‘The era’s over…’ You can’t erase what we’ve done. It’s not over. It’s going to live forever.”
FOR BUBBA WALLACE, DAYTONA WAS A LONG TIME AGO
The good news? Bubba Wallace finished a close second in the Daytona 500 in his first trip as a full-time driver of the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet.
The bad news? That was the singular highlight in an otherwise difficult season.
Including the runner-up finish at Daytona — his only top five this year — Wallace has posted an average result of 24.9 through 30 races. At this point, the Daytona 500 is a distant memory.
“That was a long time ago,” Wallace acknowledged on Friday at Talladega Superspeedway, venue for Sunday’s 1000Bulbs.com 500 (2 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). There’s a lot of racing. This schedule, first rookie year with the Cup schedule… it’s a long schedule.
“I know that was a while ago, but we still relive those moments, those little highlights of success I still relive and think about constantly. It’s kind of off in the distance, but it seems like you can just reach out and view it all over again.”
Wallace hopes to relive the moment more directly in Sunday’s race, the last restrictor-plate event of the season, but he has to be careful this weekend. Because of attrition, Wallace arrived at Talladega without a backup car.
“Yeah, out of all the speedway races we’ve had, we have run OK, but then the cars are totaled at the end. That’s part of it. So, yeah, we’re just going to go out and do our own deal until the race starts. That was new news to me going into this weekend. I was like ‘Oh, all right.'”
SORRY, NOAH, BUT THAT’S NOT YOUR CREW CHIEF
For a while, at least, Noah Gragson thought he might have the services of Kevin Meendering as his crew chief next year.
Gragson has signed with JR Motorsports, where he’ll replace NASCAR Xfinity Series championship contender Elliott Sadler, who is retiring from full-time racing at the end of the season. Meendering is Sadler’s crew chief.
But Hendrick Motorsports team owner Rick Hendrick had other plans for Meendering, who will replace Chad Knaus as crew chief for the No. 48 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series team of seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson next year.
That leaves Gragson with a major unanswered question.
“I don’t know who my crew chief will be,” said Gragson, who is battling for the NASCAR Camping World Championship in the No. 18 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota this season. “I was reading on Twitter yesterday, and I saw Meendering, who I think that is the crew chief for the No. 1 car (Sadler).
“I started to put things together, and I thought that was the guy who is supposed to be my crew chief. Why is he going to be the crew chief of Jimmie Johnson next year? I don’t know who it’s going to be. I’m really focused on competing this weekend and finishing this year out strong with my Kyle Busch team.”
Gragson faces a Truck Series elimination race in Saturday’s Fr8Auctions 250 at Talladega (1 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
–Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service. Special to Field Level Media.