After decades of titles being decided all over the map and autumn calendar, the annual NASCAR season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway has become the coronation spot of stock car racing's greatest championship. But in recent seasons it has also become the sport's grandest stage for goodbyes, from Tony Stewart to Jeff Gordon to Dale Earnhardt Jr. This weekend's biggest farewell involves two men who won't be retiring, but rather breaking up.
Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus have celebrated in South Florida more than any other driver-crew chief combo and perhaps more than any duo ever will. Each of their record-tying seven titles were clinched at Homestead, some in dramatic fashion, others by relatively easy math.
But as they run their 607th and final race together, where do they rank among the all-time greatest NASCAR driver-crew chief combos?
We're glad you asked.
10. David Pearson and Jake Elder
30 wins, 2 championships
The Silver Fox and Suitcase won back-to-back titles in 1968-69 while teamed up at powerhouse team Holman Moody. Those were the last two seasons that Pearson ran a full season (more on that later). Elder went on to launch the careers of Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace and Davey Allison, but never stuck around long enough to win a title with any of them, thus the nickname Suitcase.
9. Lee Petty and Lee Petty
54 wins, 3 championships
That's not a typo. The Petty OG did everything his way. And it worked. Technically, his teenage son was listed as his crew chief for several of these wins, but Richard knew who was in charge.
8. Tony Stewart and Greg Zipadelli
33 wins, 2 championships
Zippy and Smoke were the only force strong enough to repeatedly derail the Jeff Gordon Express in the early 2000s, the crew chief managing to play dual roles of crew chief and psychiatrist during Stewart's, well, let's call it his "Intense Period." They still work together today as executives at Stewart Haas Racing.
7. Cale Yarborough and Herb Nab
35 wins, 2 championships
There are those who will always argue that any driver/mechanic pairing at Junior Johnson & Associates ultimately answered to another "crew chief," their boss and former legendary driver, Junior Johnson. Yarborough won the first two of his three straight titles with Nab in 1976-77.
6. Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Hammond
43 wins, 2 championships
When Yarborough left Johnson in 1981, he was replaced by his most loathed rival, DW, who immediately won his first Cup title. The following year, longtime crew member Hammond officially took over atop the pit box and coached Jaws for the next decade. Together they won 31 races, two more Cup Series titles, and barely missed out on a third. The pair left for Hendrick Motorsports in 1991 and won a dozen more times, including Waltrip's long-elusive Daytona 500 victory. Even with their success, this duo will always be dogged by what-ifs, as in what if they had stayed with Johnson and what if Hammond hadn't left Hendrick in 1992.
5. David Pearson and Leonard Wood
42 wins, 0 championships
Wood revolutionized pit stops and strategy while Pearson outran the likes of Petty, Yarborough and Bobby Allison. No, they never won a championship together, but only because they never ran for one, choosing to enter the fabled No. 21 car in primarily the higher-paying speedway events. Forget Cups, ask the racers of the 1970s which driver/crew chief pairing they feared most. They broke up after a brutally bad pit stop at Darlington in '79. We'll always wonder how much more they would have won together.
4. Dale Earnhardt and Kirk Shelmerdine
44 wins, 4 championships
Every NASCAR fan knows that Earnhardt won seven championships, but they might not know that he won those titles with three different crew chiefs. The first was with wunderkind Doug Richert in '80 (with an assist from Suitcase Jake) and the last two were with now-TV analyst Andy Petree. But the four in the middle, when The Intimidator legend was born, came with Shelmerdine making the calls. The quirky Philadelphia-born engineer somehow clicked with Ironhead and they teamed up to win 44 of Earnhardt's 76 career victories. Another item for the what-if file: Shelmerdine, eager to make his way as a race car driver, walked away from the No. 3 team in 1992, after four Cup titles in seven years.
3. Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham
47 wins, 3 championships
Now we've arrived at perhaps the greatest NASCAR what-if of them all. What if Gordon and Evernham had stuck together past 1999? They'd broken into both the Busch (Xfinity) and Cup Series together and their four-year run from 1995 to 1998 was perhaps the most dominant run of any team in stock car racing history, with three Cups, a championship runner-up, and 40 wins, including every Crown Jewel race twice over. Evernham's understudy was a young mechanic from Rockford, Illinois, named Chad Knaus.
2. Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus
81 wins, 7 championships
What kind of insane NASCAR world would have been unleashed had we'd seen a Johnson/Knaus vs. Gordon/Evernham mentor/apprentice throwdown during the 2000's? We'll never know. But what we do know is that Knaus took the Evernham formula at Hendrick Motorsports and supercharged it, denying Gordon and a succession of No. 24 crew chiefs their chances to add to Gordon's four Cups. Despite a seemingly constant changing of car styles and championship formats, the No. 48 never slowed down, even when Johnson and Knaus (like Gordon and Evernham) were engaged in some very public in-race disagreements. This pairing was so great that it made people believe there was no parity within the sport during what has easily been the most leveled playing field that NASCAR has ever raced on.
1. Richard Petty and Dale Inman
187 wins, 7 championships
Now take bits and pieces from all of the duos we've already mentioned, mash them together, and you'll build the monster that these two cousins from Level Cross, North Carolina, created. Cagey in-race strategies? Check. Mind-meld communication skills, even when they argued (which they did, a lot)? Check. Sustained success despite ever-changing rulebooks and championship points models. Check. Overwhelming statistics that don't seem real when you read them? The biggest check of all (See: 1967 alone with 27 wins and 10 in a row). And finally, any what-ifs? Yes, even with these two. They split up in 1981, immediately following their seventh Daytona 500 win. Inman won an eighth title, with Terry Labonte in 1984. That same year Petty won his 200th race. By '86 they were back together and still are, running Richard Petty Motorsports, but both wonder what they could have done had they stuck together during those missing seasons ... or if they'd done a DW/Hammond-like deal that was on the table from Rick Hendrick. Will Knaus and Johnson look back one day and ask their own what-ifs? Stay tuned.
Honorable mentions: Bobby Isaac and Harry Hyde (36 wins, 1 championship), Dale Jarrett and Todd Parrott (27 wins, 1 championship), Joe Weatherly and Bud Moore (20 wins, 2 championships), Herb Thomas and Smokey Yunick (19 wins, 2 championships), Dale Earnhardt and Andy Petree (15 wins, 2 championships).