Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images
Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images

Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus share thoughts on Hendrick’s 2021 NASCAR success from Road Atlanta

BRASELTON, Ga. — Even as he walked around the IMSA paddock filled with sportscar enthusiasts at the Motul Petit Le Mans event over the weekend at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta, Chad Knaus was smiling and accepting congratulations for a job well done in his full-time gig — vice president of competition for the NASCAR Cup Series champion Hendrick Motorsports team.

A week ago, Knaus was celebrating with champagne and confetti after Hendrick driver Kyle Larson wrapped up a 10-win season with a championship bow. This weekend, Knaus led his previous Hendrick champion driver Jimmie Johnson as the pair wrapped up an IMSA Michelin Endurance Challenge season — competing in the four endurance races and finishing fourth on Saturday.

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Johnson, whose former No. 48 NASCAR team took over Larson’s 2021 No. 5 effort, was genuinely happy for his friends and their success. Fresh off his inaugural IndyCar season, the seven-time NASCAR champ was an integral part in that group’s inaugural season together under Cliff Daniels in 2020 — Johnson’s final year of NASCAR competition.

In particular, Johnson said he was proud of second-year NASCAR Cup Series crew chief Daniels’ accomplishment leading the Larson team. Johnson has known Daniels for years through their time at Hendrick — when Daniels was working on SIM data and various engineering positions — long before Daniels began leading Cup teams.

“I’m so thankful for the time I had at HMS,” Johnson said. “I’m so thankful for everything they provided and gave to me and I know along the way I was able to help in many ways, too.

“I think bringing Cliff Daniels into the crew chief position was a good move. We had a lot of great guys on that team already that knew Cliff, but they jelled and we had a great year in 2020 to kind of grow the team. And Cliff kept adjusting.

“Larson comes in and is on top of his game and they have just an epic year with 10 wins and the championship. Truly happy for any and all those folks and probably carrying a bit more pride for Cliff just because of the history I have with him and understand the journey he’s been on to be an elite-level crew chief and he’s able to do that in his second year.”

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Knaus, who left the pit box this season to lead Hendrick’s overall technical efforts, was equally as proud for the work put in and the trophy it produced. But for him, it was also about raising the overall game of Hendrick, which put two drivers — Larson and 2020 NASCAR Cup Series champion Chase Elliott — in the Championship 4 and had all four drivers — including William Byron and Alex Bowman — qualify for the playoffs via wins.

“Obviously, with the 5 (Larson), I was extremely happy that they won and I was super proud of them,” Knaus said. “What an amazing year they had of working together and competing at a super high level and frankly, probably deserved the championship more than most.

“The 9-car (Elliott) was extremely fast all year long. They had some hiccups along the way, but they made the final four and they were running very competitively. And then you have the 24 (Byron) that was running well and had some issues but really a strong series during the playoffs and then unfortunately the 48 car (Bowman) that won Martinsville a week ago and then went to Phoenix and ran like 15th all day.

“You really only feel as good as your worst car. But I’m very proud of everybody at Hendrick Motorsports and their contribution throughout the year. It was really, really high and we really wanted this one badly, obviously.

“To be able to close out the Gen-6 era with a lot of wins and a championship and welcome Kyle to the organization and be able to do it in this fashion was a really special year for us all.”