By Liz Allison
The recently announced split between Jimmie Johnson and longtime crew chief Chad Knaus for 2019, serves as a reminder of the complexity of team relationships in racing.
The Crew Chief position is one of the most vulnerable positions in NASCAR. In fact, the turnover rate for crew chiefs at NASCAR’s top level is nothing less than staggering. The marks left on the sport by crew chiefs have been historically reserved for a select few masterminds.
Dale Inman is perhaps the most successful crew chief of all time. Inman served as crew chief for seven championship with Richard Petty and another championship with Terry Labonte. Inman won an astounding 198 races as crew chief, which is why Inman is a NASCAR Hall of Famer.
Although Bud Moore worked with a multitude of dominant racers, he is best known for his three championships as a crew chief with legendary competitors Buck Baker and Joe Weatherly.
The prolific partnership of crew chief Kirk Shelmerdine and Dale Earnhardt won a total of four championships together. Shelmerdine went on to compete in a racing career of his own.
Lee Petty was incredibly unique in that he somehow found a way to be a driver and a crew chief at the same time. The father of Richard Petty unbelievably won three championships with himself as the crew chief.
At only 47 years old, Chad Knaus is the lone active crew chief to make the list of legendary crew chiefs. Knaus started on the Jeff Gordon team as a crew member under the direction of Ray Evernham. Chad and Jimmie Johnson accomplished seven championships together, making this crew chief/driver teaming one of the most successful in NASCAR history. There is no denying that Knaus is a future Hall-of-Famer.
Ray Evernham was known for pushing the limits and playing the “gray area” of the rules, an approach that worked well guiding the Rainbow Warriors and Jeff Gordon to Three championships. Ray was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2018.
Other notable driver/crew chief combinations Greg Zipadelli/Tony Stewart, Jeff Hammond/Darrell Waltrip, Andy Petree/Dale Earnhardt, Smokey Yunick/Herb Thomas, Tim Brewer/Cale Yarborough, Tim Brewer/Darrell Waltrip, Jake Elder/David Pearson, and Jake Elder/Darrell Waltrip.
The pressure-packed, performance-driven aspect of running at NASCAR’s top level certainly can strain even the closest and most successful driver/crew chief relationships. Communication, respect, trust, and skill all have to be working full-time in order to make these high-stress relationships work, which is why the revolving crew chief door in NASCAR will continue to turn.