THE TINTED-GLASS doors slid open, and the most successful man in NASCAR in 2007 strode up the three stairs into the air-conditioned cool of Jimmie Johnson's number 48 hauler, parked in the garage area at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The start of the final race of the NASCAR season was still two hours away, but every member of Johnson's crew lined both sides of the narrow aisle inside the hauler. Rick Hendrick pressed forward, shaking every hand thrust at him, like the President making his way through the House of Representatives to give the State of the Union address.
Finally, Hendrick stopped. The 58-year-old owner of Hendrick Motorsports is normally quite mild-mannered, but now his internal RPMs were redlining. After clearing his throat, Hendrick delivered the most stirring pep talk of the season to his team.
"Everyone in this garage wants to whip us," said Hendrick, his voice rising. "You've got them talking to themselves. In the modern era of our sport no one has come close to what we can finish off today. Let's lock and load. Let's go get 'em!"
And so they did. On Sunday the 32-year-old Johnson, who's just entering the prime of his stock-car career, finished seventh in the Ford 400 (behind winner Matt Kenseth) to clinch his second straight Nextel Cup. How impressive is this? In beating teammate Jeff Gordon by 77 points in the final standings, Johnson became just the 10th driver in the 58-year history of NASCAR to win back-to-back titles—and the first since Gordon accomplished the feat in 1997 and '98.
But to fully appreciate the accomplishments of Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, who have dominated their sport in this decade almost as completely as the Patriots have in the NFL, a wider lens is required. Over the last six years Johnson and Knaus have had more wins (33), more top five finishes (86) and more top 10s (134) than any driver--crew chief combo in the Cup series. In the four-year history of NASCAR's 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup format, they're one of only two teams (the other is the number 17 car of Kenseth and crew chief Robbie Reiser) to have qualified for each postseason. And this year, their best on the circuit, Johnson and Knaus won six of the last 12 races, including four of the last five. So transcendent were they during the Chase that they scored more points through nine races than any past Chase champion had through 10.
"Jimmie and Chad have something very, very special together," says Gordon, who had more top 10 finishes this season (30) than any other driver in modern NASCAR history, which dates to 1972, and still lost to Johnson. "I know everything that goes into their cars and everything about their setups, and they're still beating us. It's frustrating, but you've just got to give them credit. They're the best right now."
HE'S NOT a bumper and banger like Tony Stewart or the late Dale Earnhardt. No, Jimmie Johnson on the racetrack is what NBA legend George Gervin was on the basketball court: cool, graceful, economical. He's also as mistake-free as anyone in NASCAR today. "Jimmie just doesn't mess up," says Darrell Waltrip, the three-time Cup champion who's now an analyst for Fox. "But the real key to his success is being with an organization that is simply the most dominant in the sport today. Rick Hendrick is an actor, not a reactor, and he just makes things happen. It all starts with him."
Indeed, the story of Johnson's second Cup begins with Hendrick, who lords over the sport like no other owner in the Chase era. Not only did Hendrick drivers win half of the circuit's 36 races this season, but they also finished first (Johnson), second (Gordon) and fifth (Kyle Busch) in the final standings. With 550 employees, Hendrick Motorsports is the biggest team in NASCAR, and it may possess more resources than any of its competitors. This doesn't guarantee success—just ask former Yankees manager Joe Torre—but Hendrick's deep pockets, which have been stuffed full by his 60 car dealerships in 13 states, have dramatically helped build this racing dynasty.
In the spring of 2006, for instance, Hendrick spent nearly $1 million to install a machine called an AVL Dynamometer in the team's engine shop in Charlotte. This intricate machine, which is commonplace in the more technologically advanced Formula One series but in NASCAR is used only by Hendrick and Joe Gibbs Racing, allows Hendrick engineers to test the durability of their engines in nearly exact race conditions. In fact, every engine must pass through 1,600 miles of rigorous testing on the Dynamometer before it's allowed in one of the Hendrick race cars. It seems to work. In 144 total starts this season, the four Hendrick drivers had only one engine blow up; by contrast Dale Earnhardt Jr., driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc., suffered six engine failures in 36 starts.
"This machine does the same things to the engine that Jimmie and Jeff and the rest of our guys will do to it during a race," says Jeff Andrews, Hendrick's director of engine development. "We're also able to learn more about generating power in the engine by seeing up close how it's stressed during a simulation. This has been a tremendous asset for us."
The biggest asset at Hendrick Motorsports, though, is clearly Hendrick himself. One of the most successful owners in sports—he has now won seven Cup championships, the second most in history behind Petty Enterprise's 10—Hendrick was raised on a tobacco farm in the rolling hills of southern Virginia. He likes to tell the tale of how one day, when he was 10 years old, the family's tractor broke down while his father, Joe, was plowing. As his father repaired the crankshaft, little Rick was dispatched to a neighbor's house to borrow another tractor, which the neighbor gladly handed over at no cost. This was, in retrospect, one of the most significant experiences of Hendrick's childhood because it ingrained in him the simple yet powerful virtue of sharing, which forms the core of his racing philosophy. "Growing up, everyone in our community depended on each other because we had to, and we were better off because we worked together," Hendrick says. "I've applied this same principle to our entire organization. Everything is shared among our four teams. Everything. We're like a big family, and I like to think that's one of the reasons why we don't lose many people at the end of most seasons."
Indeed, the annual turnover at Hendrick is remarkably low—on average it's about 2%, which makes it the lowest of any of the powerhouse teams in the Cup series—and that stability has been a key element in Hendrick's back-to-back titles. Engineers, mechanics and even shop sweepers are reluctant to leave, in part because of their fondness for the boss. Over the years Hendrick has at times paid medical bills and found specialists when needed for stricken team members; he's loaned out his private jet when emergencies have arisen; and he's even covered funeral expenses when the worst happens. These acts may not mean much when the money's on the line on Sunday, but every time Hendrick opens his wallet to help someone in his shop it does as much for morale as reaching Victory Lane. That's another crucial element in the building of the empire.
"I couldn't believe how positive the environment was at Hendrick when I first got here," says Casey Mears, who drove for Chip Ganassi Racing from 2003 through '06. "Yes, we have great equipment, but there's a closeness here that I've never experienced before in racing. Everybody feels like they need to work their tails off because no one wants to disappoint Mr. Hendrick. He's like a father figure to all of us."
ON THE final Friday of the season, another driver who views Mr. H—as Hendrick is known around the team's headquarters—as a second father rode on the back of a golf cart across one of the outer fields at the Speedway. Jimmie Johnson's mind was on Gordon, just as it was for the entire 10 weeks of the Chase. "In my career I've been so closely linked with Jeff that maybe in some people's minds I don't have my own identity," Johnson said. "But, man, I think the accomplishments of our team speak for themselves."
That same day Johnson and Gordon posed for pictures on the second floor of the main building at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Afterward they stepped together into an elevator. The two close friends had waged a compelling, seasonlong battle for the Nextel Cup, and when the elevator doors opened to the lobby, a cluster of autograph-seeking fans awaited them. Gordon—the four-time Cup champion who is Johnson's mentor and co-owner of the number 48 team—stepped back, allowing Johnson to lead the way.
It was a small gesture, but one symbolic of what Johnson accomplished in 2007. Finally, he's no longer in Gordon's shadow. With a big assist from Mr. H, he's now known simply for what he is: NASCAR's fastest, most successful driver of the Chase era.
"Everything is shared among our four teams," says Hendrick. "Everything. We're LIKE A BIG FAMILY."
Tom Bowles's driver grades and Tim Tuttle's breakdown of the top off-season story lines.
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After nine months of banging, drafting and jawing—i.e., racing—here are the highs and lows of the Nextel Cup season
A series-best 10 wins, including four of his last five races. 'Nuff said.
BEST CREW CHIEF
When a driver has the fastest car week in and week out, as Johnson did in the Chase, it's a reflection of the crew chief's ingenuity and skill. Knaus, put simply, is the best in the biz.
Edwards silenced the one-year-wonder whispers (third in the points in '05, he failed to make the Chase in '06) by winning three times and finishing ninth in the standings. What he didn't silence were questions about his temper, which leads us to ...
... BEST FEUD
Carl Edwards vs. Matt Kenseth
In the most dangerous sport Edwards's feigned punch at a teammate's noggin on Oct. 21 was one of the scariest moments of the year.
Juan Pablo Montoya
The former Indy 500 champ and Formula One winner lived up to his considerable hype, reaching Victory Lane once and finishing a rookie-best 20th in the standings. He'll be a Chase contender in '08.
Before the Chase, he had never finished higher than third in a race in his two years on the circuit; during the Chase he had a win and two second-place runs, which propelled Bowyer—NASCAR's version of Appalachian State—to third in the final standings.
Kahne wasn't very able in '07. A year after winning a series-best six races, Kahne never seriously contended for a checkered flag and plummeted to 19th in the standings.
Aug. 12 at Watkins Glen
This one featured a near fight (Kevin Harvick vs. Juan Pablo Montoya), an unexpected flop (Jeff Gordon's late spinout) and more fender rubbin' than any other event of the season. Bring on more road-course racing!
We interrupt this TV ad featuring Michael Waltrip to ask a question: Why on earth is Waltrip, who was at the center of the Daytona 500 cheating scandal and finished 44th in points, still one of NASCAR's most ubiquitous pitchmen?
Even though he had the points lead at the time, the 48-year-old Martin took a break from driving after four races to spend time with his family—just as he promised he would.
After skidding across the finish line upside down and in flames at the Daytona 500, Bowyer climbed out of the wreck and—either still woozy or trying to win the understatement of the year award—dubbed his race "pretty uneventful."
Photograph by Fred Vuich
LET IT WAVE Johnson closed with a flourish, winning four in a row before a seventh at Homestead sealed the Cup.
[See caption above]
MAN BEHIND THE WHEELS Hendrick (flanked by Johnson, left, and Gordon) now has seven Cup titles to his credit.
FRED VUICH (KNAUS AND JOHNSON)
KNAUS AND JOHNSON
SAM SHARPE (MONTOYA)
DAVID E. KLUTHO (BOWYER)