The Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA - AUGUST 29: Jimmie Johnson drives the #48 Ally Chevrolet down pit road following an on-track incident during the NASCAR Cup Series Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway on August 29, 2020 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

They were once NASCAR’s seemingly unstoppable driver-crew chief paring, a duo that struck fear in the hearts of the rest of the field.  Together they scored 81 race wins and seven NASCAR Cup Series titles.

But after Saturday night, one will compete for an eighth NASCAR Cup title, one will not.

Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus, “divorced” prior to the 2019 season.  A shocking breakup that kept Knaus in-house at Hendrick Motorsports and Jimmie Johnson with a new crew chief.

The No. 48 Chevy had been struggling.  A team who had won multiple races in every season they competed in, and seven titles along the way, had gone winless in all of 2018. And as teams oftentimes do, it was hope that a crew chief swap would be the cure for what ailed the team.

However, that doesn’t always work.  It’s almost like simply throwing something at the wall and hoping it will stick.  In the case of Knaus and Johnson, it didn’t.

Johnson has not won a race since 2017; Knaus, paired with a young driver, didn’t win a single race until Saturday night when his new charge, William Byron, scored his first win in 98 Cup starts.

Johnson though remains winless, and in his final season as a fulltime driver will not add an eighth NASCAR Cup title to his résumé.

Part of the reason falls on Johnson and his team. While testing positive for COVID-19 forcing him to miss a race isn’t his fault, his team did fail post-race inspection at Charlotte stripping him of a second-place finish.  Those races represent points he was never able to get back. A points loss that left him in a precarious position entering the final regular season race. He was below the cutoff for the Playoffs needing a win or a strong performance to make it into the 16-driver field.

For a good portion of Saturday night’s race Johnson was doing what he needed to do.  He was competitive and even missed one of Daytona’s infamous Big Ones, a multicar crash that swept up many. Unfortunately for Johnson his main rivals for the final spot, Byron, and Matt DiBenedetto, also missed the big crash.  Byron would go on to win is first race, and his first with Knaus. Johnson’s luck, however, ran out with two laps remaining, when an 11-car crash swept him up.

Despite severe damage to his Chevy, Johnson continued to finish on the lead lap in 17th-place. DiBenedetto however finished 12th, which combined with Byron’s win, left Johnson on the outside looking in.

“I knew the position we were in,” Johnson said. “So, it’s not like this is a shock or a surprise. My emotions are what I would have expected. Definitely disappointed. We’ve been running well and running good.”

While Johnson was dealing with his new reality, his former crew chief was remembering his former driver, and friend.

“I hate it for Jimmie,” Knaus said. “He’s one of my best friends. He was the first guy that came by pit road and looked up at me, revved up the engine, gave me a thumbs up. He means the world to me. He’s a great man and brother of mine.”

And for Johnson, there is always another day. There won’t be an eighth championship, however.

“After a couple of beers and a flight home,” Johnson said, “I’m going to get a good night’s rest and try to shake it off tomorrow and just focus on the next race.”

Actually, 10 more races.  Ten more races until his days as a fulltime Cup driver are over.

“Guys were really bummed out there on pit lane as I was getting out of the car — my team members were,” Johnson said. “But we all know there’s still 10 more races to try to win. That’s what everybody’s focus is: to try to send me out with a trophy.”

Greg Engle