‘Damn it, we’re gonna get beat again’: The reality of trying to defeat Johnson, Knaus

Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus pose with their Hall of Fame rings
Jared C. Tilton
Getty Images

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — “They were just honestly the best.”

There is perhaps no better, more succinct way to define newly minted NASCAR Hall of Fame inductees Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus at their peak on the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team.

The numbers are absurd — and speak for themselves with a record-tying seven NASCAR Cup Series championships (including a record five straight), 83 wins and a slew of other statistics that prove the No. 48 was No. 1 for a decade and a half.

MORE: Analysis: Johnson sped past HOF contemporaries | Scenes from Friday’s induction ceremony

But on the red carpet on the night of the driver-crew chief duo’s enshrinement into stock-car racing’s eternal glory, NASCAR legends offered their own insight into what made Johnson and Knaus so tough to compete against as they charged toward record-setting careers.

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That sufficient description of the No. 48 team’s success came Friday night courtesy of Matt Kenseth, a Class of 2023 inductee to the Hall himself. Kenseth’s day job today is serving as Competition Advisor at Legacy Motor Club, where Johnson serves as a team co-owner. But 20 years ago, Kenseth was driving the No. 17 Ford for Roush Racing, celebrating the 2003 Cup championship at the end of Johnson’s sophomore season.

In Johnson’s first two years in the Cup Series, both he and Kenseth won six races respectively. But Johnson’s ascension to the peak of NASCAR history came at his competition’s expense, including Kenseth.

“They were just honestly the best, which is a very obvious statement,” Kenseth admitted. “But they were the best at figuring things out before other people, figuring out ways around things to make their car faster until they change the rules where they couldn’t do it anymore. Like, they were usually the first to most of those things, and obviously Jimmie could drive the heck out of a race car, make great decisions, and always was there when it counted at the end. So they were just a team that was all but impossible to beat.”

Ray Evernham, inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2018, was crew chief of Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 team when Knaus showed up to Hendrick Motorsports in 1993. Knaus fibbed out of work at Stanley Smith’s race shop to drive from Birmingham, Alabama, to Concord, North Carolina for a job interview.

In their first meeting, Knaus didn’t mince words with Evernham and told him he wanted Evernham’s job. Eventually he got it — thanks to Evernham, who gave Knaus his first job as crew chief in 2000 with Evernham Motorsports for two races with Casey Atwood when Evernham fired up his own team. Fast forward to the success Knaus enjoyed with the No. 48 team at Hendrick, and Evernham was left with mixed emotions.

“Chad actually was working for me when they offered him the job on the 48,” Evernham recalled Friday. “And he came in, he said, ‘I got a job offer.’ I said, ‘Well unless it’s Rick Hendrick, I don’t want to hear about it.’ He said, ‘It’s Rick Hendrick.’ I said, ‘Well, you gotta go then.’ But watching him and Jimmie mature together to where they came in as rookies and immediately became competitive, I was really proud on one hand, you know, having known Chad for so long. On the other hand, it was like damn it, we’re gonna get beat again.”

The frustration wasn’t limited to competition outside the doors of Hendrick Motorsports. Four-time NASCAR Cup Series champion and Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon served as co-owner of Johnson’s No. 48 team and was largely responsible for selecting its driver. All four of Gordon’s titles came before the little-known prodigy named stepped into the Cup Series. The No. 24 team’s winning ways never vanished, but they were immediately challenged by the young hotshot from El Cajon, California.

“I mean, in all seriousness, because I was friends with Jimmie, I wanted to see them succeed and I’m proud of them of everything that they’ve done,” Gordon said. “And I think that that overshadows some of the challenges that they brought for me. But I will say the intent was to bring them in and lift up all of the cars and the teams at Hendrick because we were working closer together and sharing more information. And they did. Unfortunately, they just kept stealing the show.

“I think 2007 was disappointing (for) me. We had them, I felt like. Had them behind us in points, won a couple of races in the Chase or whatever it was called then. And they just came back as they did many times and took it away from us.”

But what separated Johnson and Knaus from the pack was a tenacious determination that led them to every crevice of advantage they could find.

“We were just a few steps ahead,” Johnson said on the night of his induction. “And Chad was just tireless with his development of our race cars. We would test nonstop back before the testing rules. We were just always on the road — test, test, test test — and I was open to it. I was in a great place in life and can make all the time available to do it. And we got into this practice to where he wouldn’t even tell me what he was doing with the car. Occasionally, he’d said, ‘Hey, tiptoe into this one.’ Other times, he’s like, ‘No, this is going to be good.’

“And he just had this stuff kind of waiting. And at times we had so much stockpiled that we could actually take our time when we needed to release it and save it for the end of the year and save it for the championship battle. Because oftentimes when you take it to the garage area, you’re surrounded by a lot of very intelligent people. And everybody’s studying what we were doing. And if we showed up too early with our stuff, everybody around us would have it. So there was this way to manage the environment that he was so good at and I didn’t realize it at the time. But looking back on it, he had many more management skills than I wanted to admit at the time.”

The fervor by which Knaus and Johnson operated was seemingly unmatched, leading the No. 48 team to stunning success against other NASCAR greats — from legends like Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace and once-teammate Terry Labonte in the early 2000s to the modern-day stars of Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr. and everyone in between.

“We worked really hard,” Knaus said. “We were tenacious. We had a passion for the industry. We outworked most people. We did more testing — whether it be at the race track or in the lab or the wind tunnel or whatever it may have been. And we bought into one another. You know, Jimmie and I, we had a great vocabulary and a great communication style to where I was able to really understand what he was saying about the car and I can almost visualize it. So I think all of that was great.

“And then we had the resources. Mr. Hendrick never told me no. Now, he may have told me I was in trouble and I shouldn’t be doing this or shouldn’t be doing that. But if it was something that we needed to go out there and win races, it was there.”

And so they capitalized — 83 times on the race track, and with seven championships, unheard of in the modern era. It’s only fitting Johnson and Knaus went in together.