For nearly two decades, the No. 48 Chevrolet set up by Chad Knaus for Jimmie Johnson was fast — dang fast. After seven championships at NASCAR’s highest level, however, the pairing of Knaus/Johnson started to slow down. The veteran Hendrick Motorsports duo failed to reach Victory Lane last season for the first time in Johnson’s full-time career, also registering career lows in top-five and top-10 finishes.
HMS decided a change was necessary, moving Knaus over to the No. 24 to pair him with sophomore driver William Byron, while Kevin Meendering will rise from the Xfinity Series ranks with JR Motorsports to helm Johnson’s No. 48.
It’s arguably the biggest shakeup since the birth of HMS, and one that will have a serious impact on the 2019 season and beyond. Which crew chief will make the biggest mark on his new team? NASCAR.com’s Pat DeCola and Chase Wilhelm debate.
DECOLA: Whatever you want to call it — a feeling, intuition, delusion — I was already all-in on Byron taking a major step forward in his sophomore campaign after an admittedly lackluster rookie season. Though he did win Sunoco Rookie of the Year, Byron’s four top 10s in 36 races were a bit underwhelming after lighting up the NASCAR world with a combined 11 wins from 2016-17 in the Xfinity and Gander Outdoors Truck Series ranks.
I talked more about this in a debate earlier this month, but I feel there were too many variables working against the then 20-year-old in his first year at the highest level of motorsports to really get things rolling consistently. Most/all of them have been cleared up for his second year, and it should culminate in an environment he can thrive in.
Then you add in the fact that he’ll now be working with arguably the greatest crew chief in the sport’s history, and it’s a no-brainer that the ceiling for Byron in 2019 is sky-high at the moment. There may be some growing pains in the early portion of the season, sure, but I think it’s a safe bet that Knaus has the No. 24 Chevrolet dialed in by season’s end and in playoff contention.
Knaus is the perfect candidate to groom Byron into being the next “face of the franchise” that Johnson heralded for more than 15 years after “Seven-Time” inherited that duty from Jeff Gordon. Johnson drove his tail off during their tenure together, but Knaus’ ability to push the Californian to new heights amidst a sometimes-tenuous but often-dominant relationship was unparalleled.
I believe the impact he will have on Byron will be massive.
WILHELM: There’s no question the addition of Knaus on the No. 24 team is going to really take Byron’s performance to greater heights for years to come, but since we’re talking about a crew chief who will have the biggest impact this season, my money is on Kevin Meendering.
Although Meendering doesn’t have all the impressive statistics behind him that Knaus has racked up through the years, there’s a reason why he’s getting his first full-time shot in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series with a seven-time champion in Johnson. Team owner Rick Hendrick isn’t going to just put anyone in that role.
Between the three successful seasons the 37-year-old had with veteran Xfinity Series driver Elliott Sadler at JR Motorsports and his work as an engineer during his previous time at Hendrick Motorsports, there was a reason why Johnson’s phone was blowing up with praise for Meendering.
“The amount of respect everybody here at Hendrick Motorsports has for him, from Chad to Alan Gustafson, you name the crew chief, even throughout the industry … I’ve been receiving text messages from competitors saying ‘hey he’s a sharp guy and a great choice,’ ” Johnson said. “So, his reputation and the way people hold his work ethic and his value the way they look and think of him.”
Steve Letarte, an NBC Sports analyst and former crew chief at Hendrick, gave him high praise, too, saying Meendering reminded him of Knaus.
Johnson’s lackluster 2018 season was a sign he needed a fresh start to go after that record-breaking eighth championship after the first winless season of his career. Meendering is the perfect choice. A mix of the fire that still burns in Johnson to win races and championships with Meendering’s stellar prowess will get Johnson back to Victory Lane in 2019.