IT WAS JAN. 23, 2007, A TUESDAY AFTERNOON AT THE HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS headquarters in Charlotte, when Rick Hendrick stepped out of his black '07 Chevy Tahoe and into the chill of the winter air. The start of the NASCAR season was still 26 days away, but Hendrick's internal rpms were already redlining as he walked into a vast showroom to give his preseason pep talk to the 550 employees that form his race team. After shaking hands with several drivers and crew chiefs—including Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus—the 58-year-old Hendrick strolled through the crowd toward a platform, like the President squeezing through the House of Representatives to give the State of the Union address. Hendrick had already won six Cup titles, and now he wanted more.
"If we keep working at it, we can win the championship again this year," he said. "Nobody has the talent and depth that we have in this room. Let's just stay focused on what's important, and that's bringing home another trophy."
This may not have been the stuff of Rockne or Lombardi, but the crowd thundered in applause. Hendrick's words clearly lit a fire inside of everyone in his organization, because now, 10 months later, Hendrick reigns over the sport as no other owner has in the four-year history of the Chase for the Cup format. Not only did his drivers win half of the 36 races this season, but they also finished first ( Johnson), second ( Jeff Gordon) and fifth ( Kyle Busch) in the standings. "This is about as good of a year as an owner could ever hope to have," said Hendrick before the final race of '07 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. "It's just been a dream kind of season."
Especially so for Johnson, who became just the 10th driver to repeat as NASCAR champion. Johnson started the season fast—he won three of the first six races—but then endured a summer slump. After wrecking at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 29 to finish 39th in the AllState 400, Johnson fell to ninth in the standings. Suddenly his season was on the brink: He was in danger of missing the Chase for the first time in his career.
To make matters worse, Johnson was without Knaus, who was serving a six-week suspension for a rules violation on June 22 at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif. During his "forced vacation," as Knaus called it, he watched races from his office, helpless to stop his driver's free fall in the standings.
But there was an unseen upside to the suspension: It gave Knaus, one of the most intense crew chiefs in the garage, a break from the unrelenting grind of the NASCAR schedule. "For whatever reason, we've had a problem with slumping in the middle of the season for the past few years," Johnson says. "I think it was because we just got a little tired. But this year we've really tried to stay as fresh as possible and not burn ourselves out. We've given our guys breaks when they've needed it, and Chad got a six-week break. Maybe it helped us stay a little fresher when the Chase started. The Chase is all that really matters, anyway."
Indeed, when Knaus returned to his seat atop Johnson's pit box, the dominance of the 48 team returned as well. In Knaus's first race back Johnson finished third at Michigan, then went on to win six of the final 12 races—including four of the last five—to beat teammate Gordon by 77 points for the title. "Jimmie and Chad have something very, very special together," says Gordon. "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."
On the final Friday of the season, after the top two drivers of 2007 posed for pictures at Homestead, Johnson and Gordon stepped into an elevator together. The two friends had waged a seasonlong battle for the Nextel Cup, and when the elevator doors opened to the lobby, a cluster of autograph-seekers awaited them. Gordon—the four-time Cup champion who is Johnson's co-owner, mentor and standard-bearer—stepped back, allowing Johnson to lead the way.
It was a small gesture, but it was symbolic of what Johnson has accomplished. Finally, he's no longer in Gordon's shadow. Finally, he's known simply for what he is: the fastest, most successful driver of the Chase era.