Chad Knaus, Jimmie Johnson's crew chief, is insisting that his mid-race decision that rocked his sport Sunday was not a big deal.
And, as his No. 48 team moves on to Phoenix this weekend accompanied by the No. 24 pit crew, Knaus is standing by his guns that the dramatic personnel change is really simply part of the Hendrick Motorsports operational attitude.
“What everybody else perceives as a negative we kind of take as a challenge,” Knaus said Monday at the Hendrick shop. “This is a positive thing. To be able to make this switch seamlessly breathes some new fire and some new energy into this.
“I’m extremely excited about Phoenix. It’s one of my favorite race tracks. Both pit crews are excited. Stevie’s [Jeff Gordon crew chief Steve Letarte] is excited. This is a decision we made together. We feel like it’s best for our team.”
When the No. 48 pit crew struggled in the first half of Sunday’s race at Texas Motor Speedway, Knaus called on the No. 24 pit crewmen to replace them for the race’s second half (Gordon had crashed out of the race). On Monday, it was announced that the switch will be permanent for the rest of the season, meaning that the 24 crewmen will pit Johnson’s car at Phoenix this week and in the season finale the following weekend at Homestead, FL.
And the crew change happens in the middle of a firefight. Denny Hamlin won the Texas race and jumped in front of Johnson into the point lead. Now Johnson, 33 points back, will try to catch Hamlin with a “new” team.
“It’s a difficult situation, for sure,” Knaus said. “There are a lot of emotions involved, but I think the thing everybody has to realize when we set up this team it was a one-team situation. That’s what we are and always have been.
“We’ve had crew members from the 24 pit the 48. We’ve had mechanics on the 48 pit the 24. It’s always been like that. And we’re going to continue to work that way. We set it up at the first of the year that we’re going to have five or six tire changers, three or four jackmen for the 24 and the 48. That was explained to those guys at the first of the year and everybody understands that.
“I don’t think people understand. It’s not an easy decision to do that kind of thing. There are emotions involved, and everybody understands that. They are our guys. We eat, sleep and drink with them. We win with them, we lose with them, we do whatever it is with them.
“But, ultimately, it’s bigger than seven guys. We’re 520 people strong here in this team and we’re 80-plus people strong here in this building. So it’s more about the team than what people really think.”
Mike Ford, Hamlin’s crew chief, pounced on the 48 situation Sunday, suggesting that the mid-race crew switch was an act of desperation.
That didn’t sit well with Knaus.
“I don’t think it’s an act of desperation by any stretch of the imagination,” he said. “It’s an act of what we’re got to try to do to win the race. We’ve got a setup that we run at Phoenix that we like a lot. We’ve got a car at Phoenix that we like a lot. We’re not going to run that exact setup if it’s not fast. It’s like changing a spring or a shock. You have to put the best components together to try to win the championship.
“Unfortunately, we’re not in a situation where the 24 can win the championship right now from this building. And that’s what it’s about – this building. We have to take away from those guys right now.
“I can tell you one thing. It was one of the coolest experiences yesterday when we got all those guys together. I hadn’t seen a light in the eyes like that of the 48 guys for a while. They’re really excited to have a driver that’s willing to go out there and punch and scrap and claw and fight, and they really want to get Jeff a win. It’s really neat to see. The guys on the 24 side are really excited. They want to go out there and try to contribute from their side of things to help the 48 win the championship. So I think it’s a really good opportunity for everybody.”
Asked to respond to Ford’s comments that the Hendrick teams were apparently more concerned about the company than the individual team, Knaus said, “Obviously, that’s not a very good team over there then. If we start to think about the individuals here we don’t operate as a team. You guys know us very well. Especially in this building, we’re thick as thieves, man. This 24-48 group, we will do whatever we can. If we’re racing one other, we’re going to kick and fight and punch, but if you mess with one of us and you’re the competition, it’s a completely different circumstance. This team is thick and strong, and it’s looking to go out there and try to win this championship.”
Knaus said the Hendrick teams met Monday afternoon to hear the details for Phoenix and Homestead.
“There was nobody mad or upset,” he said. “I think you’re going to see energy from the 48 team [working for Gordon] that you haven’t seen in some time.”
Knaus said none of the 48 crewmen quit or offered to quit Sunday as some media reports had indicated.
Letarte said Tuesday he is fully behind the change and looks forward to Sunday.
“I don’t feel I’m taking an inferior group to the race track,” he said. “I feel our chances to win at Phoenix are as good as they were on Monday, as good as they were on Friday. ... It’s our duty within this building and within this company and especially to our sponsor to go out there and perform all the way to the end.
“We have two races left to go, and we definitely wouldn’t do anything to hurt either car. We make decisions all week long that affect both cars. This one is definitely large. It is big and in the media, it happens on live TV, but it’s no different than the setups we’re going to run and how we go to the race track. Chad and I pride ourselves in how much we work together. I’m extremely disappointed the 24 hasn’t run for championships with the 48. I take personal responsibility for that. I wear the 24 colors. But at the same token, they give me a 48 ring. I get to go to New York with everybody else. When these two cars win, I’m very proud of it.”
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.