Johnson, his crew chief Knaus join Allison in NASCAR Hall of Fame
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Jimmie Johnson's dreams first came true when he was given a motorcycle for Christmas at age 4.
That was when he fell in love with racing.
Johnson was honored for his career on Friday night when he and crew chief Chad Knaus, who he teamed up with to win a record-tying seven Cup championships, were inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
The sport’s dominant duo, both first-ballot inductees, joined Donnie Allison, an original member of the “Alabama Gang,” in a celebration at the Charlotte Convention Center as part of the Class of 2024. Janet Guthrie, the first woman to race in both the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500, was inducted as the Landmark Award winner for contributions to NASCAR.
“Some Hall of Famers said that the moment is going to get real. I think it just happened,” Johnson said, holding back tears. “This is the highest honor to stand alongside our sport's greats in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.”
Johnson won 83 Cup races — tied for sixth most in NASCAR history — in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 Chevrolet, all but two of them with Knaus as crew chief. Knaus, now the vice president of competition for Hendrick, was suspended for two of Johnson’s wins, including one in the Daytona 500.
Their five straight Cup championships from 2006-10 stand as a NASCAR record.
“We clicked right away with similar interests and everything to prove,” Johnson said. “We could read each other's minds. ... His work ethic and ability to bring the best out in me was most impressive.”
Then he looked over at Knaus and said, “Congrats, brother, I am so happy we are able to go in on the same ballot.”
Knaus grew up in the Midwest working on cars and had a goal of becoming a crew chief by the time he was 30, living by the motto of “work hard from morning until night.”
With the help of Hendrick crew chief Ray Evernham, he got that chance at 28.
“My father taught me what it meant to have the best race cars, to have the proper maintenance schedule, to never settle for second, to continuously learn and to always push the rules," Knaus said, before adding with a laugh, “I kind of stuck with that last one a lot.”
Knaus also thanked Johnson.
“Jimmie helped me find out who I was by believing in me,” Knaus said. “You have taught me there is much more to life than racing — even if it has taken many, many years to understand that.”
Despite their success, there were bumps along the way.
Car owner Rick Hendrick, who re-hired Knaus in 2002 to work with Johnson, said the relationship between the strong-willed, motivated men almost never materialized.
In the months leading up to the 2006 season, Johnson and Knaus were feuding after failing to win a championship in their first four years together. There was talk of the pair pushing for a split, but Hendrick wanted none of it.
He called them both into his office, and upon arrival slammed a gallon of milk and some cookies in on the table in front of them.
“I said, ‘Guys, it is really a shame that you are so successful and yet you can’t get along, but if you want to act like children then why don’t we sit on the floor and we will have some milk and cookies and have timeout,’” Hendrick said. “And they started laughing.”
Johnson recalled the meeting well, saying, “When we walked in, we didn’t make eye contact. We didn’t say hello to each other, which only fed Rick’s point that if you are going to act like kids, I’m going to treat you like kids.”
Knaus chuckled at the memory, saying, “For the record, it wasn’t a gentle set down of the milk and cookies. It was like, we are going to eat some milk and cookies.”
The pair would go on to win the first of five straight titles, and Knaus called it a “critical” moment in their careers.
“We were so frustrated because we felt like we should be in position to win the championship in 2005 and we weren’t able to close the deal,” Knaus said. “It was more about frustration not having the success as opposed to having emotions toward one another. So, we just had to get that squared away and understand that.”
Johnson was inducted by his wife, Chandra Janway.
Janway, who wasn't present when Johnson was selected for the Hall of Fame last August, has kept a low public profile and the couple now lives in London following the deaths of her parents and nephew in what police believe to be a double murder-suicide last June.
Johnson addressed the incident briefly in his speech, thanking everyone for support in what he called an “unbelievable tragedy.”
Allison, who won 10 Cup races, was voted in on the Pioneer ballot. He becomes the final member of the Alabama Gang to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, joining brother Bobby Allison and Red Farmer.
Allison called it the “ultimate” honor.
“What else is there?” Allison said. “When you start out racing like I did, you dream of getting into the Hall of Fame.”
Guthrie did not attend the event, but sent a message via video thanking several drivers for their help with her career, including Allison.
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