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Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus and the conversation that saved a NASCAR Hall of Fame team

Only milk and cookies prevented a complete implosion

NASCAR: AAA 400 Drive for Autism
Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

By now, the most ardent NASCAR fans know that only a glass of milk and cookies saved Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus from imploding before their decade of dominance could truly begin in the NASCAR Cup Series.

The tandem, who were inducted into the Hall of Fame together last week, went onto become arguably the greatest driver-crew chief combination in the history of NASCAR with seven championships and 83 victories together.

But it nearly never happened as Johnson and Knaus could not stop arguing after their defeat in the 2005 Chase for the Championship and it nearly tore them apart. They had won 18 races over their first four seasons together but had no championships to show for it.

NASCAR 2005: Ford 400
Jason Parkhurst-USA TODAY Sports

Frustration boiled over, repeatedly, and team owner Rick Hendrick felt as though his two professional competitors were acting like children. Thus, he forced them to talk over their problems at the shop, over a glass of milk and cookies.

He wanted them to realize how childish they were acting, grow up, and move on together.

“In 2004 we lost the championship to Kurt Busch by about two spots on the track,” Johnson said during the media availability after their induction. “2005, we were in the running for the championship again, racing Tony Stewart for the championship. We had an issue with the right-rear tire and crashed. Tony had a pretty poor night for his standards and it left us in this headspace of like, ‘we had a shot at it.’

“In our eyes, we had two opportunities slip away and you just never know how many looks you are going to get at a championship. That frustration of being so close was really the foundation of the frustration and anger. This was the week after Homestead. We were just angry and mad and both of us had spoken to Rick and acted like a kid. That led Rick to the idea for that meeting and he called us in.”

Hendrick didn’t mince words about the state of his No. 48 team at that point.

“Sometimes brothers, guys who are close, seem to have most friction,” Hendrick told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio last week. “I brought them in and I said, ‘It’s amazing that you’ve had the success you’ve had but now we are at a point where we are talking about Chad (Knaus), you having another driver. Jimmie (Johnson), having another crew chief.’ And I said, ‘When you think about it, you don’t know what you are going to get when we shuffle the deck. If we are going to act like kids … I had this gallon of milk and I put it on the table, here’s some milk and cookies. Why don’t we have some milk and cookies, sit on the floor and have a timeout?’

“They started laughing. I got up, started to walk out and said, ‘Why don’t you guys talk about? Let’s talk through everything. What you don’t like and what you like. Let’s see if we can’t fix this.'”

Milk and cookies — for a 29-year-old professional driver and a 33-year-old professional crew chief. The absurdity left them embarrassed but also forced them to accept that something needed to be done about it.

It was a relationship worth saving, and that isn’t hindsight speaking, as no team had won more races together since their pairing in 2002.

“We had such a steep trajectory and I thought that we should have won the championship by then,” Knaus said. “We had a very good opportunity to win the championship in 2002 — our very first year.

“When I sat in that meeting, I’ll be frank. I walked out of that meeting and I remember vividly I was embarrassed. I was embarrassed at the fact that Mr. Hendrick had to sit us down – two grown men with the opportunity of a lifetime and we were sitting there just letting it go away. I’m going to take the advice of the man who has mentored us and given us an opportunity to change the structure of the 48 team.

“We worked diligently that whole off-season (between the 2005 and 2006 seasons). We worked on giving the engineers more skin in the game, we worked on putting more emphasis on the engineers, on the car chief Ron Malec and giving everybody a little bit more tangible interest in the team as opposed to me doing it all. I was building the shocks, I was setting up the cars and I was putting the bodies on the cars. I was doing it all prior to that and we had a tremendous amount of success but it was very selfish. I was embarrassed after I sat there with Mr. Hendrick. I came out and I vowed that I was going to do it differently. Trust me, I made a lot of mistakes after that but that did set the foundation of where we were going to be in the future.”

NASCAR: Daytona 500
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Johnson and Knaus opened the next season with a win in the Daytona 500. They won five times and captured their first championship. Then they won another, another, another and another one. They won five championships in a row and are largely credited with NASCAR coming up with the modern playoff format designed to prohibit such dominance.

But it all started with Hendrick forcing his driver and crew chief to hash it out.

“Rick is pushing us to get into the experience and gives us both a chance to air what is on our minds,” Johnson said. “We honestly got into a real conversation in many ways. We left that meeting and changed our course in how we worked. We went in a different direction.”

In hindsight, and Johnson didn’t know how to articulate it in real time, he just thought Knaus didn’t delegate enough.

“It’s interesting that you think you were selfish because from my standpoint I thought you were overworked and ultimately, I guess it was a combination of both,” Johnson said to Knaus during the availability. “He had the shortest fuse. He was so overworked. He was covering so much territory and then he got comfortable delegating to different folks and empowering more people. I think it gave him a lighter bandwidth to really run and operate the team on a different level and the championships just started coming.”

Johnson, Knaus and Hendrick celebrated the induction ceremony, not with champagne, but with milk and cookies.

Matt Weaver is a Motorsports Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.

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