Grand Rapids' Meendering works on ending Jimmie Johnson's slump

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Brooklyn, Mich. — Grand Rapids native Kevin Meendering is working hard on trying to get Jimmie Johnson back to Victory Lane at Hendrick Motorsports.

Johnson has 83 NASCAR Cup series wins and is one away from tying Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison for fourth on the all-time list.

Drivers hit the first turn at Michigan International Speedway on Monday.

But, Johnson entered the weekend at MIS in the midst of a 73-race winless streak and had just one top-five finish this season, running fifth at Texas in late March.

Johnson parted ways with his crew chief Chad Knaus, who had been alongside him during the entire seven-title run, including five straight (2006-10), saying, “Chad and I, we ran our course and the last couple of years were pretty tension-filled and tough.”

Now, the 38-year-old Meendering is calling the shots as Johnson’s crew chief.

And, Johnson’s chances for a solid showing ended early in Monday’s FireKeepers Casino 400 — which was run a day later than scheduled due to inclement weather on Sunday — when he was running dead last at the completion of the competition yellow which came out just 20 laps into the 200-lap event around Michigan International Speedway’s two-mile oval.

Johnson was running in the middle of the pack, but then had to take multiple trips down pit road during the first caution period after he collided with the No. 95 Toyota driven by Matt DiBenedetto when Johnson was exiting his pit and DiBenedetto was entering his pit.

Johnson finished 15th and had a frustrating weekend, plus a day, especially since he planned to leave for a family vacation to Greece Sunday night.

Meendering has been with Hendrick Motorsports for the last 20 years, working in a variety of jobs, including the chassis shop while he was interning his senior year in high school and then working his way through college at UNC-Charlotte while he was working on his engineering degree.

“I’ve lived in the south for quite a while, moved when I was seven so I’ve been in the south longer than I’ve been here (in Michigan), but I still have a lot of family, a lot of friends in this area,” Meendering said.

“My uncle and dad all worked on cars and built cars and I lived right across from Berlin Raceway (near Grand Rapids) so as a kid I was in the grandstands watching the races, picking up cans, spent a lot of time in the race shop and then when I was seven or eight just by coincidence my family chose a different career opportunity and they happened to move to North Carolina in the heart of NASCAR and just by coincidence I ended up there and got involved in the NASCAR side.”

Jimmie Johnson signs autographs before practice at MIS on Friday.

So, how did he work his way up through the Hendrick Motorsports ladder?

“My senior year in high school I started at Hendrick, I worked in the chassis shop,” Meendering said. “I’d go there after school, cleaned, cut out parts and just worked my way up from there. I knew I wanted to get into NASCAR so I chose to go to UNC Charlotte which is close to Hendrick (Motorsports shop) so I worked at Hendrick the whole time I was going, pursuing my engineering degree at UNC Charlotte so I’ve been there since 1999 so 20 years now I’ve been with the company.

“I started in the chassis shop, eventually became a fabricator and as I got my engineering degree I moved into research and development and then I had the opportunity to join Steve Letarte’s team with Jeff Gordon as an assistant engineer, that was kind of my first traveling job. Then, I worked for Dale (Earnhardt Jr.) for several years as a primary engineer and then he gave me an opportunity to go to Junior Motorsport and be a crew chief with Elliott Sadler the last three years and now I’m with Jimmie, that’s kind of my progression.”

Meendering developed a relationship with Johnson while working on Dale Jr.’s No. 88 car. Johnson approached him at the end of last season about the possibility of joining his No. 48 team.

“Jimmie was the first one to reach out to me,” Meendering said. “It kind of started with Jimmie and then with Mr. H (Hendrick) as well. Towards the end of last year, he was looking to make a change and we had a couple of meetings and obviously I had known Jimmie from working with him at my prior years at Hendrick when I was on the 88 team. We were in the same shop as the 48 so we had some interactions.

“It’s all about communication between the driver and crew chief and just having different personalities and different thoughts, sometimes just making a change and rejuvenating those thoughts and ideas, I think that’s all what Jimmie was looking for, not really a fresh start, but how do we improve the communication between driver and crew chief, kind of rejuvenate his career. Sometimes you have to just make changes and when the performance isn’t there and just try things. I think that’s what he was looking for.”

Knaus is now working as crew chief of Hendrick Motorsports driver William Byron in the No. 24 car.

“I have a great relationship with Chad,” Meendering said. “We work right beside each other. We talk to each other every day, bounce ideas off. I think we have a great working relationship between all four crew chiefs. I feel like we work very close together. We’re all pulling in the same direction and obviously Chad is probably one of the greatest crew chiefs out there, the success he’s had, the championships, but they’ve had their struggles the last couple of years so my job is to get the 48 back to consistently run up front and win races.”

Things going well for JGR

Joe Gibbs has been able to get sponsors to open their doors, but his relationships with them, along with his drivers’ success have helped keep them on board at Joe Gibbs Racing.

And, Gibbs needs to keep those sponsors with 550 employees working on 10 teams in NASCAR’s three series, including JGR’s four-car team in the premier Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series.

“The biggest thing of us coming here is this part of the country with our sponsors, I did four hospitalities today (Sunday) with people from this area, and of course this is so close to the home of automobiles that it’s a big deal for the manufacturers and it’s a big deal for us,” Gibbs said Sunday before the race was postponed.

“I think for all of those reasons coming here is special. I enjoy the fact that we get to race in different parts of the country. Auto-Owners is going to sponsor one of our cars today and Stanley Black & Decker, we got Mars Corporation here. The thing that is different with this sport, you have to have great partners as a sponsor and that’s different than any other sport.

“If you think about it, Mars is going to be in this race on the car and they are part of it and you can’t do that in any other sport. I love that part of it, the relationships and you develop some close relationships and when you win a race you get to see them enjoy the benefits. It’s social, it’s digital, it’s a huge deal, it’s the driver representing, it’s the show car program, it’s the whole package getting things together to make it valuable. Otherwise, you’re not going to get people to renew and in the last year and a half we’ve had six of our companies re-up long term so it’s a big deal.”

It helps when your drivers have as much success as JGR’s Kyle Busch (four), Martin Truex Jr. (three) and Denny Hamlin (twice) have, combining to win nine of the first 14 races this season.

Truex finished third Monday, Busch, fifth, Hamlin 11th and Michigan native Erik Jones 31st.