Johnson, Knaus look forward to Ives reunion
August 01, 2014, Stu Hothem, NASCAR.com
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LONG POND, Pa. -- Greg Ives is at Iowa Speedway this weekend, working toward a NASCAR Nationwide Series championship with Chase Elliott, but he was top of mind in Pocono with his former No. 48 teammates ahead of his transition back to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Chad Knaus, who helped raise Ives in the Hendrick system, called his return to crew chief the No. 88 team in 2015 "really a no-brainer."
"Greg is obviously a very good fit with me and the rest of the team at the 48/88 shop," Knaus said. "He worked his way up from a mechanic to a chassis set-up guy to the No. 48 lead engineer and won championships with us."
Knaus noted it's a popular decision at the shop, which has seen Ives "come up as a young man, have kids, grow, turn into a crew chief, win races in the Nationwide Series, lead the points over there, so everybody is really excited to have him back."
Ives' main qualification for moving from the Nationwide Series pit box to the No. 88 Sprint Cup team is "he brings fast race cars," according to Knaus.
With past crew chiefs, including uncle Tony Eury and cousin Tony Eury Jr., Dale Earnhardt Jr. has had turbulent relationships. Knaus appeared to begin to address those concerns but stopped short when he said, "Dale's matured enough now that he can handle … "
After acknowledging that Ives is a "good guy" and "a family man," Knaus reiterated, "When you have fast race cars, everything else seems to just take care of itself."
Both Knaus and six-time Sprint Cup Series champ Jimmie Johnson said current No. 88 crew chief Steve Letarte will be missed, but the strength of Hendrick Motorsports is that system, which has produced winners across the 48/88 and 5/24 shops.
"Look, we are sad that Steve (Letarte) is leaving, let’s be straight. We all like Steve, but much like Steve and (No. 24 crew chief) Alan (Gustafson) and myself, Greg has gone up through the system," Knaus said.
"Everybody knows him, everybody respects him. He understands the Hendrick way so it's good. I think it's going to be a great thing."
A potential change in chemistry within the successful shop has been a concern for Johnson. While it appears to have been alleviated by the selection of Ives, Johnson noted a unique relationship between Knaus and Letarte that will be hard to match.
"It's going to be hard to recreate the magic we've had with Steve and Chad to kind of take on different roles," Johnson said. "In a sense, it's kind of been a good cop, bad cop in our shop where Chad will be tough on our guys and Steve will come by and smooth it out when it's over.
"But our shop works very well together and to protect that environment, there's a very short list of guys to take over the 88 car crew chief role. I was hopeful that it would go Greg's way, and I'm very happy that it did. He's worked very hard to develop as a crew chief and an individual."
Johnson looks forward to seeing a familiar face in the shop from his first five championships.
"I went through so many years seeing him all the time and he was such an integral part of finding speed in our race cars, and it's going to be nice to see him a lot more often now," Johnson said. "If you look at his stats and what he has accomplished there as a crew chief, you can say definitely he's earned this opportunity."
Looking at those stats over the past two seasons since leaving the No. 48 team, Ives has five wins, 15 top-fives and 31 top-10 finishes in 51 Nationwide races with Regan Smith and Elliott.
Knaus doesn't seem to be worried about recreating the magic as he shared the secret to the success of the two-car shop within the four-car team.
"Michael Landis, our team manager, and I spoke about it yesterday," Knaus said. "Greg understands how we work. We work with a three-person task force between the two crew chiefs and Michael Landis to make the decision and the directions that we go in our shop -- what we do with our race cars and how we approach life."
While the two teams will continue to talk about working together next year with a new leader in charge of Earnhardt Jr.'s team, there's a Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup to win.
"Our goal is to keep that No. 88 car running up front, hopefully win the championship or finish second in the championship between us and the No. 88," Knaus said. "We have got to focus on that. We have to pay attention to what we are trying to do this year. Try to get the teams to stay together intact and move on to 2015 without any problems."