Chad Knaus back to calling race strategy for Jimmie Johnson at Twelve Hours of Sebring

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Though he hung up headset as a NASCAR crew chief this season, Chad Knaus will return to calling race strategy Saturday at Sebring International Raceway for Jimmie Johnson.

Knaus will be mapping out the tactics for the No. 48 Ally Cadillac of Johnson, Kamui Kobayashi and Simon Pagenaud in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring.

Now the vice president of competition at Hendrick Motorsports, Knaus also helped out the Action Express team at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. With team engineer and technical director Iain Watt also busy with overseeing the team’s primary No. 31 Cadillac, Johnson said Knaus will be stepping up his responsibilities to help Watt by assuming the No. 48 strategy.

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“I think broadening his scope of things is really good for Hendrick Motorsports,” Johnson said Thursday of Knaus. “After having Daytona, I think he just understands the flow of these races better.

“Who knows how some of this technology will really transfer in the future, and if it’ll be useful for him or not, but I think him being the racing enthusiast that he is, he’s always wanted to come over to this form of racing and be a part of it. So now he has that chance and is slowly accepting more responsibility as we go.”

Retiring from full-time Cup competition after the 2020 season, Johnson is fulfilling his bucket list by racing part time in IMSA (Daytona and Sebring are part of a four-race slate) and the NTT IndyCar Series (where the 45-year-old rookie will run 13 races on road and street courses).

Though he remains heavily invested in NASCAR, Knaus, who guided Johnson to seven championships and 83 victories in NASCAR’s premier series as his crew chief for 17 seasons, is in a similar position to branch out – while potentially gaining knowledge for his day job at Hendrick.

The NextGen car that will make its Cup debut in 2022 has similarities to a sports car, which is partly why Hendrick has team members involved in helping pit and support the Ally-sponsored No. 48 car. The team already had extra work Friday, having to rebuild the rear end of the Cadillac after a qualifying wreck for Johnson.

Knaus seems to be enjoying the moonlighting, giddily posting several social updates Thursday from Sebring and even the crash Friday didn’t get him down. He also personally selected the five-member crew that will pit the No. 48 Action Express Cadillac in Saturday’s race (10 a.m., NBCSN).

“I feel like what was required of Chad as a crew chief in the Cup Series just took so much time, and he tried to watch other forms of motorsport from afar and certainly has a love for sports car racing,” Johnson said, pausing to add with a laugh that Knaus has “owned a few nice sports cars over the years.

“So to be able to have a new position and manage folks and have weekends to himself, he’s decided to be busier and come join us and be part of the IMSA program. I feel like it’s always been something in the back of his mind. He’s always asked me a lot of questions about the experiences I’ve had. He is really excited to be here, as am I excited to have him here. He’s just trying to get some reps and figure out the differences here and how he can apply his knowledge and smarts and try to help the team.”

Jimmie Johnson and teammate Kamui Kobayashi debrief Friday at Sebring International Raceway (Michael Levitt/LAT Images/IMSA).

After a runner-up finish in the Rolex 24, the No. 48 will enter Sebring as a solid contender despite running a part-time schedule. Kobayashi, a sports car ace with two Rolex 24 victories and F1 experience, believes the team can win, especially after shoring up some technical problems on pit stops in the season opener.

Johnson told NBC Sports’ Leigh Diffey and Townsend Bell (interview video above) about the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship that “I’m really enjoying this. It’s a very nice change of pace. I’m really having a good time.” Using the high-downforce, high-horsepower DPi Cadillac as preparation for his NTT IndyCar Series season, Johnson said he has been studying how to navigate traffic, which hurt his lap times in Daytona.

“When you look at Action Express and the tracks they run so well at, Sebring is a really good opportunity,” Johnson said. “We did have an issue with our fueling in Daytona that cost us quite a few seconds on each stop. So with it being a shorter race and every second mattering even more, hopefully we have all that cleaned up, and we can be there in the fight.”