With all due respect to Martin Truex Jr., who embarrassed the rest of the field with a thorough whipping in winning Saturday nightâ€™s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Kentucky Speedway, the biggest news from the race weekend probably was the announcement that Chad Knaus, Jimmie Johnsonâ€™s crew chief, has signed a contract extension to stay with the seven-time champion for two more years.
Knausâ€™ contract was scheduled to run out at the end of this season, and there was some thinking that the 46-year-old might depart pit road for television or a desk job at Hendrick Motorsports.
That sort of talk has increased over the past year or so as Johnson, typically one of the most feared drivers on track, has limped through a winless streak that stretches to June 2017. And itâ€™s not like Johnson is running close to the front week to week or that heâ€™s been outrun for wins in the final laps. Heâ€™s been mostly in that category described as â€śalso ran,â€ť having led an astonishing total of only 15 laps all season.
The struggle is real.
TAKEAWAYS: From Saturday’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky
Johnson seems determined to reverse this trend, and Knaus is the best person to help him make that happen. They have been partners at or near the top of the sport since 2002, and despite occasional squabbles the sort of which might be expected from teammates who share so much time and toil together, they retain the tightest of links.
Knaus doesnâ€™t need the money or the prestige that come with big-time success at auto racingâ€™s top level, but he is as competitive as anyone along pit road, and a departure from the sport while what was once one of motorsportsâ€™ top teams is struggling would not leave a good look.
â€śObviously, Iâ€™m a very competitive person, and if we go three weeks without winning Iâ€™m frustrated,â€ť Knaus said.Â â€śItâ€™s just a matter of going out there and competing.Â I love to compete.Â The winless streak right now, yeah although itâ€™s not where we want to be by any stretch of the imagination, it is where we are.Â Itâ€™s our reality right now, and weâ€™ve got to fight through it.â€ť
The mystery cloaks more than Johnson and Knaus. Chevrolet has won only one race â€” the season-opening Daytona 500 â€” this season, and Johnsonâ€™s three teammates at Hendrick Motorsports also have found the going tough. This yearâ€™s Chevy has proven to be a horse that wonâ€™t be broken. Knaus typically solves these kinds of issues almost as a matter of course, but the magic he has wielded for so many years has been elusive.
Despite being winless, Johnson seems on target, barring disaster, to qualify for the playoffs and another shot at what would be a record eighth Cup championship. Knaus admitted that that goal remains an important one for him.
â€śI would say that in years past it was maybe more just focusing on the next week,â€ť he said. â€śBut I think I would be foolish and lying to not admit the fact that to get eight championships and to put Jimmie on a pedestal by himself at the top of the standings with championships is not a huge desire of mine and something I definitely want to try to achieve.â€ť
Statistics say that driver performance generally declines after the 40th birthday, but numerous drivers have ridden against that wind over the years, and Kevin Harvick has told his statistics to shut up this year. Harvick, 42, owns five wins and is likely to be among the final four in the search for the championship at Homestead, Fla., in November.
The Knaus renewal puts the crew chief on the same timeline as Johnson, whose Hendrick contract runs two more years. It would seem logical for them to ride off into the sunset together after two more seasons, and itâ€™s difficult to imagine their current struggles continuing over that span.
With the ink drying on a new contract, the way is clear.