When Jimmie Johnson takes the checkered flag at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 22, it will be the end of 14 straight seasons with Chad Knaus on top of the pit box for the No. 48 Chevrolet. The results of the partnership have been legendary so far; 72 wins, six Sprint Cup championships, including five in a row from 2006-2010, the 2013 Daytona 500, four Coca-Cola 600 victories, along with wins in the Southern 500 and Brickyard 400.
Could it be the end of an era next season? If performance isn’t stepped up, there’s no doubt that it’s a possibility.
This season, while the No. 48 and No. 88 teams have done well overall, both the No. 5 and the No. 24 teams have been practically anonymous. Jeff Gordon has struggled with inconsistency and just a lack of speed throughout his so far disappointing retirement season. Meanwhile, Kasey Kahne flat out missed the Chase and many, including Dale Jarrett on NBC this weekend, are beginning to question his talents. The No. 88 has been dominant on the plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega and seems to be the best Hendrick car at this point in the season. Johnson’s season started off strong with four wins in the first 13 races, but only one top-five in the past nine races has many in the garage area scratching their heads.
Next year will be a very critical time for Hendrick Motorsports. With time ticking on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s hopes for that long awaited championship, Kahne needing to perform under the microscope, and the start of a new era for the No. 24 with Chase Elliott, Johnson could very easily be lost in the shuffle. For the first time since 1995, Hendrick Motorsports will only be employing one former Cup champion to pilot their Chevrolets- Jimmie Johnson.
It’s fairly obvious that Hendrick will need to make some changes to the No. 5 this off-season. Kahne just signed a four-year extension last year so they aren’t getting rid of the driver. This means that the No. 5 could likely have a different crew chief next year in place of Keith Rodden.
The No. 24 team’s struggles this season also need to be addressed in time for Elliott’s rookie season, and part of that is possibly moving Alan Gustafson away from the 24 team to a different HMS team. Common sense would dictate swapping Rodden and Gustafson around, but if the No. 48’s struggles continue into the fall months, it could be just about time to split up Johnson and Knaus.
All great pairings in history – Gordon and Ray Evernham, Richard Petty and Dale Inman, Tony Stewart and Greg Zipadelli, etc., end at some point, and it could be time for this pairing to end. All signs are starting to point to Hendrick considering it; take the wording of HMS press release earlier this week on Johnson, Lowe’s, and Kanus extensions to the team. Nowhere in the release does it say that Knaus will continue past this year with Johnson, only that he will stay with Hendrick through 2018.
HMS isn’t afraid to make radical changes when teams aren’t performing well. In 2010, they won a fifth straight championship with Johnson but no victories outside of the No. 48 and only one other driver, Gordon, on the stage in Las Vegas at the end of the year. This prompted a huge switch around in crew chiefs – Lance McGrew to the No. 5, Gustafson to the No. 24, and Steve Letarte to the No. 88. Outside of the lame-duck No. 5, which struggled with an aging Mark Martin and a soon to be replaced McGrew, the Hendrick teams improved greatly the following season.
If I were in charge of Hendrick and the season ended today, I’d move Gustafson back to the No. 5, Knaus to the No. 24, and Rodden to the No. 48. One of Kahne’s weak points has recently been not being able to adapt to a bad handling car, saying that it needs to turn better in the center of the corner. Gustafson is great at setting a car up, and I feel he and Kahne could counteract their own weak points. Rodden is still new to the crew chief job and Johnson should be able to help show him the ropes. Knaus and Elliott would be a great pairing. Knaus seems to be a pretty “we’re doing it this way” type of guy, and Elliott isn’t going to speak back to him like Johnson can.
Chicagoland Preview, the First Race of the Challenger Round of the 2015 Chase for the Sprint Cup
Brad Keselowski has recently been owning this track. In the past four starts here, he has an average finish of 3.5 and two victories. It would be hard to pick him over any other JGR/Penske driver.
This is one of Kevin Harvick’s best racetracks. Although he hasn’t won here since 2002, he has three top-fives over the last four races and, although hitting a bit of a snag at Richmond, should recover from that in time for the Chase.
Kurt Busch seems to always do well here in Chicagoland. Looking back on his past stats here, unless there is a problem on the car, he almost always finishes top-10, in spite of having no Chicagoland victories on his resume.
Matt Kenseth is a little more inconsistent. In spite of really having no major problems, he only has six top-10s out of 14 starts. He did win here two years ago however and with how large of a role the Gibbs cars have right now, it would be tough to not put him here.
The Wild Card
Kyle Larson only has one start at Chicagoland, but it was a third place finish here last season. Being outside of the Chase will enable him and his Chip Ganassi Racing team to really take gambles throughout it, and it begins this weekend.
All stats for the Finley Factor are as per Racing Reference unless otherwise noted.