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."