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Are Johnson and Knaus the best combination ever?

By admin | December 3, 2008

By Richard Allen


To be a great driver, a great crew chief is needed. For a crew chief to be considered great he must have someone who knows what to do with the machine he has created.

Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus are a great driver and crew chief combination, without doubt. So, just how great are they? Where would these two Hendrick Motorsports mates rank among the best combinations ever?

Johnson and Knaus have accounted for three consecutive Sprint Cup championships. Since their first full season together in 2002 they have amassed 40 wins. Those are very impressive numbers over such a short period of time.

Among the driver and crew chief combinations to have experienced great success in NASCAR a few stand out as the principle rivals of the Hendrick duo.

Richard Petty and Dale Inman, Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham, Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Hammond as well as Tony Stewart and Greg Zipadelli are among some of the best ever. There are others, of course, but these pairings offer a bit of the old and the new for the sake of comparison.

There are at least a couple of famous drivers not on the list above. Dale Earnhardt, Sr. experienced success with more than one crew chief. Kirk Shemerdine, Andy Petree, Larry McReynolds and Kevin Hamlin all had a stint with “The Intimidator” as their driver. The same is true for Cale Yarborough who found victory lane with more than one crew chief.

Cousins Petty and Inman are perhaps the most identifiable tandem in NASCAR history. Among the pairings mentioned, these two are the only ones who measure their victory trophies in the hundreds. Together they amassed 198 wins and seven championships. No other twosome can come close to matching those incredible numbers.

However, to be fair it must be noted that the time in which these two won most of their races and titles was a very different time in the sport. NASCAR’s schedule consisted of almost twice as many races per season than there are now and the number of competitive teams were far fewer. None the less, their numbers are, to say the least, awe inspiring.

Gordon and Evernham may have to be considered the top combination of the past 20 years. They combined for 49 race wins and three championship trophies. Like Petty and Inman in their day, this twosome is probably the most recognizable tandem of the 1990s era.

Evernham left Hendrick Motorsports at the end of 1999 to begin the work of forming his own team. One has to wonder, now that he has essentially lost control of that team to business partner George Gillett, if Evernham has ever wished he had stayed with Gordon. Although we can only speculate what the two would have accomplished had they remained a team, it almost certainly would have been special.

Among the teammates mentioned, Waltrip and Hammond may be the most difficult to judge. Although they did experience success together, they worked under the watchful eye of car owner Junior Johnson. Unlike car owners of today, Johnson was very much a hands on boss. Few decision were made that did not involve him. So, in reality he served as a de facto crew chief no matter what titles may have been handed out among team members.

In the decade of the 2000s perhaps only Stewart and Zipadelli have rivaled Johnson and Knaus. Stewart and “Zippy” have accounted for 33 wins and two Sprint Cup titles in their time at Joe Gibbs Racing. This duo separated at the end of the 2008 season when Stewart moved on to become a part owner in Stewart-Haas Racing.

NASCAR has had some great driver and crew chief combinations in its history, more than the space for this column will allow. Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus have to rank among those greats. To call them the best ever at this point would be a bit premature but a few more seasons together could push them to the top of the list.

Next week, I plan to speculate as to whether it might be time to split these two up.

Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association. His weekly column appears in The Mountain Press every Wednesday.

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2 Responses to “Are Johnson and Knaus the best combination ever?”

  1. Bill B Says:
    December 4th, 2008 at 12:34 pm

    Admittedly being a biased Gordon fan, I still think the numbers favor Gordon/Evernham over Johnson/Knaus. But I will add, if Johnson wins the championship next year that would tip the scales the other way.

  2. Tommy Says:
    December 10th, 2008 at 2:39 am

    I still think that Ray and Jeff were the best combination in recent history.

    Early on, Jeff really benefitted from Ray’s leadership. However, as Jeff’s experience grew, I think the pendalum swung the other way as Ray benefitted more from Jeff’s abilities.

    I think Jimmie is still very reliant on Chad’s leadership. If you put Jimmie with any other crew chief or even worse, another organization, his results would drop off. In my opinion, no driver benefits more from those around him than Johnson.