Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus have often been called the Tom Brady and Bill Belichick of NASCAR. It’s easy to see similarities to the NFL’s most successful duo, which Johnson acknowledged at the NASCAR Media Tour presented by Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“I think there are some parallels there,” said Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. “I don’t know Tom or Bill Belichick, for that matter. That comparison has been there for a while. To continue to see them succeed, we’ve had our success as well, kind of has opened my mind to that comparison.”
A closer look shows Johnson and Knaus as easily the most successful driver-crew chief tandem of their era with the seven NASCAR championships and 83 wins, including two in the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway. Brady and Belichick have been the NFL’s best quarterback-coach combination with five Super Bowl wins. They are fresh off an eighth AFC championship this past Sunday.
Winning their last Monster Energy Cup Series title in 2016, Johnson and Knaus rallied from behind to win the final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the final moments. Likewise, Brady and Belichick, the Patriots rallied from a 25-point deficit to beat the Atlanta Falcons for the Super Bowl 51 title.
“I think that Chad and Belichick have some commonalities, and so do Tom and I,” Johnson said. “Being able to deliver when times are tough, those make-or-break moments, the experience, athletes over 40, really serves an athlete well.
“I feel very lucky to be in a sport that I can continue my career and still have that experience on my side. It’s more rare for Tom to be in his position doing that than a race car driver. Those guys just get beat up so badly that they retire in their 30s, unfortunately.”
Both combos work for team owners, who are some of America’s most successful businessmen. Rick Hendrick has been the most successful NASCAR owner of the last 25 years with 12 Cup Series titles, and off the track, he’s one of the largest car dealers in America. Likewise, Robert Kraft’s success in football reflects the success of the Kraft Group, most noted for International Forest Products.
Detractors of both point to the controversies with playing within the rules and favorable treatment from their respective leagues. From 2001-12, Knaus was penalized 10 times and suspended twice by NASCAR. The Patriots have been embroiled in such controversies as “Spygate,” where Belichick was fined $500,000 when the team was caught illegally taping the Jets’ defensive signals, and “Deflategate,” for deflated footballs which Brady suffered a four-game suspension.
It has led to nicknames for both team leaders like “Cheater Chad” and “Beli-cheat.”
There have also been controversies including Johnson’s most recent win at Dover on a green-white-checkered restart as both he and Kyle Larson were charged with playing games on the final restart. With the Patriots, there have been the tuck-rule win over the Raiders in 2002, a Monday Night Football win over the Ravens during their 16-0 regular season in 2007 and a recent non-touchdown call in a regular-season win over the Steelers.
However, the driver and the quarterback have been praised for their commitment of staying in shape.
In Johnson’s case, he’s literally run thousands of miles to stay in top condition, while Brady is always preaching the message of a healthy diet.
“I think over each season of playing or driving, if you’re really committed to your sport, you just reflect and try to bring a better product to the field or the track every year,” Johnson said. “I’ve not met Tom, but we do have mutual friends. His commitment to getting better every year sounds very familiar. It's something I’ve done through this offseason, just trying to figure out how I can be a better member of this 48 team, looking at everything and anything that I can do.”