SportJimmie Johnson’s ‘fired up’ attitude comes with his new crew chief
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Jimmie Johnson is feeling lighter, like a weight has been lifted off him, following the worst NASCAR Cup Series season of his career.
After the seven-time champion didn't win a race in 2018 - a first in his 17 full-time Cup seasons - he officially split from his longtime crew chief, Chad Knaus, who he partnered with as a rookie in 2002. The pair had been accustomed to their hard work churning out results, but their unexpected slump "put a strain on" the No. 48 team, Johnson told For The Win.
But he's getting a new start in 2019 with a new crew chief. Knaus is now working with 21-year-old William Byron and the No. 24 Chevrolet team, and Johnson is paired with Kevin Meendering, who will make his Cup Series debut in Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500.
Architect of Jimmie Johnson's success starting over in 2019
Chad Knaus got his first big break at Hendrick Motorsports when he was picked to build a team from scratch around a rookie driver who had yet to prove he belonged at NASCAR's top level. The driver was Jimmie Johnson. Once Johnson was paired with Knaus as crew chief, the duo took off and won a record-tying seven championships as the No. 48 team blossomed into one of the best in NASCAR history. Despite a 17-year friendship and all their success, the strain of underperforming last year was the final push toward their split. Their chance to race for a record eighth Cup title together is gone and each has new roles.
"There's some weirdness, but at the same time, there's something very familiar," Johnson said.
"(Tuesday), Kevin, Chad, William and myself all talking in the mix, there's a level of comfort that comes with that too because I really know where Chad's coming from and what he's trying to achieve."
Johnson and Knaus after winning the 2016 Cup Series championship. (John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports)
The 43-year-old driver and Knaus continue working together but in a different capacity, and their relationship is still great, Johnson said. But it was simply time for change.
Hendrick Motorsports (HMS) announced in October that. And after 81 wins - Knaus was suspended for two of Johnson's 83 career total - and a record-tying number of titles, the move is comparable to Tom Brady and Bill Belichick separating.
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"Jimmie had myself and all the guys down at his place (after the announcement), and we all hung out, had some beers and just got to know each other," Meendering, 38, said.
But Johnson is optimistic about the shake-up at Hendrick. His excitement is prominent in his voice - a stark contrast to his noticeable frustration in 2018 and since his last win in June of 2017.
"I don't think you can every replicate (my chemistry with Knaus) because it's unique unto itself," Johnson said. "But with Kevin, I think the sky's the limit, and we can get on a run just like I had with Chad."
Johnson and Meendering during qualifying for the Daytona 500. (Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
While Meendering and Johnson are new to each other, the crew chief knows the Hendrick teams well. He started as an intern in the chassis shop as a senior in high school in 1999 and worked his way up to lead engineer for Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s 88 team, beginning in 2011.
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After three years in the second-tier XFINITY Series as Elliott Sadler's crew chief with JR Motorsports - Earnhardt's team, which is affiliated with Hendrick - Meendering was tapped to take over the 48 team.
He started work the Monday after the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.
"Jimmie's personality and style - he's not intimidating at all to work with," Meendering said.
"He's really down to earth, he's easy to talk to (and) you couldn't ask for a better guy to work with. He gives great feedback at what he feels in the race car, and it makes my job that much easier."
Johnson and Meendering (Courtesy of Hendrick Motorsports)
As Johnson and Meendering prepare for the Daytona 500 - Johnson won it in 2006 and 2013 - they're still getting to know each other and hanging out away from work and the track.
Understanding Knaus' personality quirks is something Johnson said he took for granted. That's the "tricky" part with a new crew chief. But building their relationship can be as simple as practicing talking to each other, even though nothing could mimic a mid-race conversation at 200 miles per hour.
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"I feel like just understanding someone's tone," Johnson explained. "If I respond and drop a couple of four-letter words in the car, does he know if I'm just venting or is there something he needs to address?"
Calm and low-key, Meendering is the "complete opposite" of Knaus, Earnhardt said, and even if he doesn't always show it, Meendering is excited to team up with "an incredibly talented" driver like Johnson.
"Jimmie will need to learn that Kevin is very laid back, not excitable and to not underestimate how driven he is and how passionate he is because of that calm personality," Earnhardt said. "Don't doubt Kevin's want to succeed."
Johnson after winning the 2019 Clash. (Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports)
Even though the season hasn't technically started, Johnson and Meendering have found early success. They finished third in Daytona 500 qualifying Sunday - Byron and Knaus got the pole - and won The Clash exhibition event later that day.
As the 48 team starts a new chapter, Johnson's revamped attitude has also caught the attention of his teammate Chase Elliott, who pointed out this "fresh look" is something the veteran driver has never had in his career. And it's why Meendering thinks Johnson is "hungrier than ever" for that record-breaking eighth championship.
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"Jimmie's super fired up," Earnhardt said. "I don't know why. I mean, he's got a chip on his shoulder because people think he's done, and he's reading on social media about people telling him to retire and he's washed up. And he's got a helluva chip on his shoulder."
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