There's an old racing adage: "To finish first, first you must finish."
Jimmie Johnson and his No. 48 Lowe's team have proven that consistently during the past seven years. In 2008, they won seven races and failed to finish only once en route to their third straight NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.
A major key to that consistency is the reliability and power of the Hendrick Motorsports engines.
Crew chief Chad Knaus, who possesses the all-time crew chief record for consecutive Cup titles, is one of those who believes the old racing adage about finishing is true, especially when it comes to engines.
"It has to be running," he said. "We build very good horsepower and torque numbers, but the most important thing is the reliability that we have."
Knaus and his car chief, Ron Malec, agree that the Hendrick motor program's success starts with the Chevrolet blocks and cylinder heads the Detroit manufacturer provides for the new R07 engine. Those major components last 10 to 15 races, but other parts, such as valve springs and pistons, are replaced after every event.
NASCAR's strict rules limit the modifications to a race engine, but there are areas where innovative mechanics and machinists can tweak the powerplants.
"We're fortunate the R07 is still somewhat in the infancy of the engine itself, and we're still learning a lot about it," Knaus said. "There are a lot of things we can work with, like cam lift and rocker arm ratios."
By today's standards, engines in NASCAR are somewhat archaic. They're similar to the old passenger car V8 engines with carburetors and push-rod operated valves. Absent are overhead valves and fuel injection. Still, the race engines are highly refined and can turn up to 10,000 RPM while churning out 800 horsepower.
NASCAR also limits teams to traditional tools at the track, which for the Lowe's team means no telemetry, but lots of Kobalt tools, just like those on the shelves at the local Lowe's stores.
"Our sport is back a little as far as advancement," Malec said. "We still use wrenches and screwdrivers like everybody else did back in the '60s. That's how our sport is, and we're happy using our Kobalt tools."
At the Hendrick Motorsports facility, everything is state-of the-art technology. The 80-person engine department is headed by Jeff Andrews, who has introduced new computer technology, inventory systems and durability testing.
"He's brought the engine shop to a new level," Malec said.
Team engineer Greg Ives said the inventory systems were a big factor in the race engines' reliability and power.
"You have to make sure all parts coming from different suppliers are checked for quality," Ives said. "When you do have a problem, you are able to trace it back to a certain batch number or to a certain area. That accountability gives you the ability to track things when there is a problem, and you can go back and figure what makes great horsepower."
Exhaustive testing is another key factor. Initial testing is done with a "spintron" that turns an engine, sometimes only partially assembled, through its motions. That is followed by pulls on a dynamometer, which simulates the load placed on the engine during racing conditions. Knaus notes the dynamometer is also used for durability testing and engine break-in.
"You don't want to put an engine in one of these cars that hasn't been started, hasn't been run,” Knaus said. “It also allows us to look at water flow, oil flow and fuel flow."
Dynos are used after a race, as well. Sometimes the tests show the engine actually made more power, either because the parts became loose, creating less friction, or the engine gained compression due to carbon buildup in the compression chamber.
Other post-race tests also are important to engine development.
"When the engine is disassembled, we take precise measurements," Malec said. "We analyze material hardness and things like that to see how the engine changed during the race. There's a whole regimen of things that are done to make the engine better the next time."
In many cases, the No. 48 engine is taken apart under NASCAR's watchful eye. After each race, the top two finishers are inspected. Last season, the No. 48 was in that elite group 12 times en route to its record-tying third consecutive title.
For Ives, those post-race tear-downs are reminiscent of old times, but different, too.
"My dad and brother owned a mechanic business back home in Bark River, Mich.," he said. "Pretty much all I did was pull motors in and out of cars, semis, trucks and heavy equipment. Now, being able to work in this clean environment with this type of equipment is a privilege."
That experience has paid off, as most of the heavy lifting and large equipment he has been involved with lately are the many trophies the Lowe’s No. 48 team has brought home with its championships.