TALLADEGA — Times already were changing long before Jimmie Johnson strolled through a Las Vegas casino unnoticed, full firesuit and all. It was the start of NASCAR’s playoffs and the seven-time champion, wearing a flame-retardant billboard, was surprised that he failed to garner even a quizzical stare.

Johnson already had lost Lowe’s, the only sponsor he’s had at NASCAR’s top level. Now he only was another face in the crowd even though the start of the playoffs were just days away and the most decorated driver of his generation was there to promote.

How utterly off-kilter for Johnson. But losing Lowe’s, floundering in a long losing streak during a dismal time at Hendrick Motorsports, going unnoticed in a hotel lobby — none of that compared to what still was to come in this bizarre season for “Seven Time.” The biggest stunner came this week when team owner Rick Hendrick, after 17 years of babysitting the delicate relationship between Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, pulled the plug on the longest pairing in NASCAR.

Knaus built the No. 48 team around Johnson from scratch. He was atop the pit box for the record-tying seven titles and 81 of Johnson’s 83 career Cup victories. The two have been together since bachelorhood, through marriage and now children for both. They were fueled by the chase for eight, the elusive number neither The King nor The Intimidator could reach.

Their farewell tour begins Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, and when they part, Johnson still will be tied with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt with seven titles. Knaus will be tied with crew chief Dale Inman.

If No. 8 ever comes, it will come for one of them, not both.

Knaus is moving to the No. 24 team, where he started at Hendrick Motorsports so many years ago building cars for a new guy named Jeff Gordon, to crew chief another fresh-faced young talent in William Byron. Rick Hendrick went to his farm system to pair Johnson with Kevin Meendering, one of those lifelong Hendrick guys who started with the company as a high school part-timer and learned how to be a crew chief.

It is the end of an era, indeed.

“We’ve lasted longer than the average length of a marriage in the United States. We’ve worked really hard,” Knaus said.

So hard they nearly destroyed the relationship on more than one occasion. Johnson and Knaus aren’t wired the same but always have chased winning. The path each took wasn’t always orderly and Knaus, so rigid, intense and inflexible, sometimes clashed with Johnson’s easygoing demeanor. The louder Knaus yelled, the quieter Johnson became.

Hendrick threatened to break them up. Sat them down over milk and cookies because they were acting like children, blaming each other and bickering over their inability to win a championship. They agreed to work as hard on their relationship as they were working on their goals, and it led to title after title and a winning pace not seen in decades.

Only now they aren’t winning anymore, and for a variety of reasons that Johnson and Knaus solely cannot control. Hendrick Motorsports is in a massive rebuild, Chevrolet has lagged behind its competitors this year and Johnson’s young teammates don’t know what they don’t know so aren’t in position to take charge of the march out of this mess.

That’s how Johnson gets stuck in a 53-race losing streak headed into Sunday. And at some point, Hendrick has no choice but to step in and try something new, anything new, even if it means splitting the greatest combination since Petty and Inman.

“It’s not like we’re trying to kill each other. That’s not where this is,” Knaus said. “It’s an opportunity for growth for both of us.”

So, six more races, that’s all these two have got left together, and they’d like to make it count.

 

NASCAR-Monster Energy 1000Bulbs.com 500 Lineup

After Saturday qualifying; race Sunday

At Talladega Superspeedway

Talladega

Lap length: 2.55 miles

(Car Number in parentheses)

1. (41) Kurt Busch, Ford, 195.804 mph.

2. (14) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 195.301 mph.

3. (4) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 195.186 mph.

4. (10) Aric Almirola, Ford, 194.571 mph.

5. (9) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 194.397 mph.

6. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 194.172 mph.

7. (88) Alex Bowman, Chevrolet, 193.768 mph.

8. (24) William Byron, Chevrolet, 193.768 mph.

9. (18) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 193.693 mph.

10. (11) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 193.380 mph.

11. (78) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 192.928 mph.

12. (17) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 192.827 mph.

13. (19) Daniel Suarez, Toyota, 192.564 mph.

14. (34) Michael McDowell, Ford, 192.509 mph.

15. (20) Erik Jones, Toyota, 192.162 mph.

16. (38) David Ragan, Ford, 191.996 mph.

17. (43) Darrell Wallace Jr., Chevrolet, 191.935 mph.

18. (2) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 191.900 mph.

19. (12) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 191.731 mph.

20. (22) Joey Logano, Ford, 191.386 mph.

21. (3) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 191.195 mph.

22. (31) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 191.172 mph.

23. (47) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 190.985 mph.

24. (6) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 190.981 mph.

25. (95) Regan Smith, Chevrolet, 190.662 mph.

26. (37) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 190.651 mph.

27. (32) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 189.940 mph.

28. (62) Brendan Gaughan, Chevrolet, 189.706 mph.

29. (13) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 189.699 mph.

30. (21) Paul Menard, Ford, 189.658 mph.

31. (1) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 189.500 mph.

32. (23) JJ Yeley, Ford, 189.380 mph.

33. (7) DJ Kennington, Chevrolet, 189.234 mph.

34. (42) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 188.731 mph.

35. (96) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Toyota, 188.367 mph.

36. (15) Ross Chastain, Chevrolet, 186.969 mph.

37. (00) Joey Gase, Chevrolet, 186.696 mph.

38. (99) Landon Cassill, Chevrolet, 186.627 mph.

39. (51) Cody Ware, Chevrolet, 183.136 mph.

40. (72) Corey LaJoie, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.

Failed to qualify

41. (97) David Starr, Toyota, 185.880 mph.