Hendrick Motorsports turned to among the best at pit crew assembly to coordinate service at the Twelve Hours of Sebring for Jimmie Johnson, Simon Pagenaud and Kamui Kobayashi.
Chad Knaus, the former crew chief who guided Johnson to seven NASCAR Cup Series championships, personally selected the five-member crew that will pit the No. 48 Action Express Cadillac during Saturday’s race at Sebring International Raceway.
The sports car classic will be the first of three more Michelin Endurance Cup races this season for the Ally-sponsored No. 48, which finished second in the Rolex 24 at Daytona.
Though the all-star lineup gelled well in the season opener, Kobayashi said last week in a Zoom news conference the team’s pit stops were behind the pace of the Rolex 24 winner.
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“Our team is kind of new,” Kobayashi said. “Action Express is running the team with Hendrick, but obviously many guys are coming from Hendrick, which has never been in the sports cars. When you look at every pit stop, we lost quite a bit of lap time.
“So I think there are many things that we can improve, so (the team) is 100 percent sure we’ll be OK in the next Sebring. I think the general feeling is we will have more opportunity in the next three rounds.”
Johnson said between practices Thursday at Sebring that a faulty fuel rig had been the culprit for the slower stops at Daytona, and the problem had been diagnosed and fixed at the shop afterward.
Working out the gremlins. That’s what practices are for. pic.twitter.com/rrlTn7Abo4
— Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) March 18, 2021
Knaus, who became Hendrick’s vice president of competition last year, has picked Scott Honan, Cody French, Mike Hubert, Mike McAndrews and Jamie Frady to pit the No. 48 at Sebring.
Honan is the only carryover from the pit crew at the Rolex 24 as Hendrick uses the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship races partly in preparation for NASCAR’s move to the NextGen car (which has similar characteristics to the DPi cars, including single-lug wheels). French is the only member of the crew currently making pit stops in NASCAR for Hendrick.
In a story posted to the Hendrick Motorsports website, Knaus said the changes were made based on the available resources at Hendrick Motorsports (which had several of its Rolex 24 crew members on other duties this weekend).
“The majority of them are from a mechanical background,” Knaus said in the story. “Maybe ex-pit crew members who have the mechanical aptitude of being situationally aware, so I picked those guys because of that. Guys who maybe have driven race cars before. Guys who have been on road crews before. Guys who built their own cars. Things of that nature are why those guys were picked.
“In an endurance race, you just don’t know what’s going to happen. Anything can break. Anything can fall off. You can crash. All those things, you’ve got to be prepared. Mechanical aptitude is pretty high in the decision-making process.”
— Chad Knaus (@chadknaus) March 18, 2021
The pit crew also will remain the same for the next two races at Watkins Glen and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta, and Johnson said Thursday that the continuity should help.
“I’m glad Chad’s here and has such an eye for things,” Johnson said. “We now have a dedicated crew that’s going to be able to check in with Action Express throughout the weekend and really get integrated into the team. After this weekend, the final two races, this seems like second nature to them and not so foreign.
“Pit stops on the NASCAR side with five lug nuts is just a different discipline in doing that. You need certainly an athletic person but somebody with great racing knowledge. So if someone can change brakes in a 24-hour race or spot and see issues when they go over the wall and address and fix it or talk to the team about it. It’s a little different skillset for tire changers than on the NASCAR side.”
Johnson, 45, will be making his debut at the iconic road course, which will mark his final IMSA tune-up before the beginning of his 13-race rookie schedule in the NTT IndyCar Series, which will begin April 18 at Barber Motorsports Park.
He also will be teamed with Kobayashi and Pagenaud in the IMSA DPi ride for the Sahlen’s Six Hours of the Glen at Watkins Glen International on June 27 and the Motul Petit Le Mans season finale at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta on Nov. 13.
A busy, fun practice day @sebringraceway!
— Chad Knaus (@chadknaus) March 19, 2021
The expansion of the team’s schedule happened abruptly after Daytona. Johnson told Holly Cain of the IMSA Wire Service that “literally going to the airport following the Rolex race, the CEO and CMO of Ally said, ‘We need to talk to you tomorrow, this is amazing.’ Mr. (Rick) Hendrick is like, ‘We need to do more of this. This is amazing.’ And (IMSA and NASCAR Chairman and co-owner of Action Express) Jim France was saying, ‘How can we make this happen?’
“So literally Sunday afternoon (the day of the Rolex 24 finish) and then Monday morning before 8 o’clock – before I had my kids dropped off at school – I had a pretty darn good idea it was going to happen. There was a lot of momentum. Everybody kind of felt the same. There were some things to iron out, but the real momentum was there, and everybody wanted to make it happen.”
Knaus also will be at the 69th running of Sebring, though he joked that he wasn’t that important at Daytona aside from getting “a couple of guys coffee a few times.” He will have more responsibility at Sebring as Johnson revealed Friday that Knaus will be in charge of strategy for Saturday’s race.
“I just tried to help with the communication from Jimmie with the crew chief and the engineer down there,” Knaus told the Hendrick website. “Because I know Jimmie pretty well.”