By Chase Wilhelm
3 Minute Read
CONCORD, N.C. – Aside from the long list of accomplishments Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have achieved together, there always has been one goal Knaus had left unchecked — until now.
Since first joining Hendrick Motorsports in 1993, Knaus has aspired to become crew chief of the No. 24 Chevrolet.
Following a storybook run of seven championships and 81 wins over the course of 17 years (Johnson had two wins with Darian Grubb filling in), Knaus now gets to live out another dream.
While meeting with a group of reporters Thursday afternoon at the Axalta Customer Experience Center on the Hendrick Motorsports campus a day after it was announced Knaus would move to the No. 24 team with driver William Byron in 2019, Knaus described how it invigorates him.
“You have no idea,” Knaus said. “I’m so geeked up by it I have goosebumps when I think about it.”
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From his first year with the organization through 1997, Knaus went from being a general fabricator to managing the chassis and body construction program for the No. 24 team under the leadership of then-crew chief Ray Evernham for driver Jeff Gordon. Knaus then jumped to Dale Earnhardt Inc. in 1998, followed by Melling Racing in 1999-2001 before re-joining Hendrick to become Johnson’s crew chief.
Knaus recalled telling a team of about 14 full-time employees his future aspirations when he first arrived on the Hendrick scene.
“In 1993 when I walked in the door and I started working in that little shop up on the hill … I wanted to be crew chief on the 24 car,” Knaus said. “It’s only taken me 25 years and 17 years with this guy (pointing to Johnson) to get the opportunity to be able to do that. So, I’m really proud of that. I’m excited.”
Now Knaus will link back up with longtime Hendrick partner Axalta, which was formally DuPont when Gordon drove for the team in the beginning. Gordon was also 21 years old when Knaus worked on the team, as Byron will turn 21 next year.
Knaus is looking forward to working with Byron, comparing it to how he felt with Johnson at the beginning of what turned into a dynasty.
“This kid has talent, he has a boatload of talent,” Knaus said. “So, for me to get the opportunity to work for him is just like getting the opportunity to work with Jimmie back then. That excitement level is very, very similar.”
According to Byron, the personalities of he and Knaus line up more than one might think, which the 20-year-old sees as a huge opportunity to take his skill to the next level.
“Probably attention to detail,” Byron said while explaining what he has in common with Knaus. “Type A personality. I don’t like excuses, so that will fit well.
“The results speak for themselves, but in terms of my short racing career, I’ve worked with a couple people that have similar traits as him,” Byron added. “It makes me excited. It makes me look forward to it. I feel like I do well in that environment and it’s going to push me to do better. That’s what I need and I feel like going into my second year, I’ve learned the ropes of the Cup Series and I can go out and our goal is to win.”
Despite the similarities, Knaus also is aware of the challenges he and Byron face next season.
“Jimmie and I were young and in a different place,” Knaus said. “William is young and I’m old. So, it’s going to be a different dynamic. I’m not 28 years old or however old we were when we started this thing.
“It’s going to be a little bit different, but there are good lessons learned,” he added. “I will definitely lean on Jimmie to find out from his perspective what he thinks I need to do and how I need to interact with William.”
As a new opportunity lies ahead next season and beyond, Knaus was hesitant to close the book while reflecting on his time with Johnson.
“I’m sad that this chapter … it’s not over,” Knaus said. “I mean, what people think is that your era is over. You can’t erase what we’ve done. It’s not over. It’s going to live forever.”