Crew Chief Changes Paying Off for Hendrick in Daytona

(Photo: Zach Catanzareti/KTT)

By: Zach Catanzareti, Staff Writer

Following 17 years together, a legendary pairing of crew chief Chad Knaus and driver Jimmie Johnson split to start the 2019 season.

And on the opening weekend of the season at Daytona International Speedway, they both have already won something apart.

With Knaus jumping to Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 24 Chevrolet with sophomore driver William Byron, the duo scored pole position for next Sunday’s Daytona 500. They led a 1-2-3-4 sweep for HMS, a first in the race’s 61-year history.

For Johnson, the seven-time champion was paired with rookie Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series crew chief Kevin Meendering. These two survived late contact to win the Advance Auto Parts Clash.

It didn’t take long to find success.

For Meendering, scoring a season-opening non-points win is as good as it gets to kick off a new relationship.

“We couldn’t ask for a better way to start the year,” Meendering said. “We kind of got a warm-up last week when we tested in Vegas, so that was big for our communication and helped us tremendously.”

Qualifying third for the 500, Meendering feels the No. 48 team has a strong Chevrolet for Sunday.

“I felt like the last couple days have been really smooth,” he said. “Cars drove well, communication has been well. We had a great qualifying effort. Wish we could have got the pole, but nonetheless, it was a great effort by our team, and everything has been smooth.”

The No. 48 team and driver Johnson are at their lowest point in their 18-year history in the Cup Series. Coming off a 2018 season with only two top-five finishes, Johnson is running on a 59-race winless streak.

With this in mind, Meendering knows the HMS team is still a tight group of talent.

“One great thing about it is I inherited a great core group of guys with the 48 team,” he said. “There’s a strong foundation there, and the team really works well together. It gels together and it’s made that transition a lot easier.

“I think everybody at Hendrick Motorsports, not just the No. 48 team, has worked really hard over the offseason, and I think some of it showed today.”

With Byron not eligible to run the Clash, the 21-year-old made the most of Sunday, scoring his first Cup pole to start his second season. For Chad Knaus, this veteran crew chief knows the importance of starting a new season (and a new relationship) with field-leading speed.

“William [Byron] can attest to this; we’ve had a lot of late nights, a lot of long hours,” Knaus said. “The thing that I think a lot of people don’t understand is… yes, we have a very fast racecar. It’s very easy to slow down a fast race car if you don’t get the details met.

“The thing we’ve worked on extremely hard during the offseason with the new guys is just the procedures, going through the procedural duties and making sure we don’t miss anything. That’s a big thing to being able to go to the racetrack and execute. Pretty amazing really.”

Through this opening weekend, Knaus liked what he saw in Byron and how the young driver has been handling the new setting.

“The last time I came here with a new driver, we sat on the pole. So it’s kind of cool,” he said. “This is really special for me. You know, a lot of you people were here back in the No. 24 days, in its youth. To be a part of that and be able to come back as crew chief of the No. 24 car and qualify first for the Daytona 500 is just an awesome dream for me.”

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