The Secret of Jimmie Johnson's Continued NASCAR Success

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The Secret of Jimmie Johnson's Continued NASCAR Success
Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

The field was in flames as Jimmie Johnson cruised to victory in Daytona at the Coke Zero 400, becoming the first man since 1982 to win both races on NASCAR's hallowed ground in a single season.

Folks, that is what you call a metaphor.

Johnson, who won his fourth race of the season and leads Clint Bowyer in the overall standings by 49 points at the halfway point, is seemingly immune to pressure. Immune to the vagaries of fate. Immune to human failings, the slight loss of focus that knocks other drivers out of position time after time during the course of a long season.

When there's trouble, Johnson is not likely to be found. It's made him the best driver in the sport.

More than that—it's made him the best NASCAR driver of all time.

If you want to start an argument at any race track around the country, repeat that sentiment. You will find a lively conversation if you're lucky. If you're unlucky, someone may want you to step outside.

Best ever?

Better than the "King" Richard Petty, the mustachioed legend with seven NASCAR titles to Johnson's five? Better than Jeff Gordon, the California pretty boy who reinvented the sport with his professional polish and sponsor-ready smile? Better, even, than the patron saint of race car drivers, Dale Earnhardt?

“I want to be considered the best driver to ever sit in a stock car,” Johnson told Bob Pockrass of The Sporting News. “The undisputed way to pull that off is to win eight championships. I put that mark way, way out there in front of me."

The truth is, you could argue until the cows come home. No one can prove that it's true. No one can prove that it isn't.

More interesting is a different question all together.

Why?

What makes Johnson—who has won five NASCAR Sprint Cup championships and never finished lower than sixth as a full-time professional—the best there is at what he does?

Every driver falters. Without exception. Except one.

Gordon has had an off year. Tony Stewart is hit and miss. Dale Jr. occasionally seems on his way to being the next Kyle Petty instead of the next Dale Earnhardt before righting the ship. Only Jimmie Johnson is right there in the thick of the chase, year in and year out.

No driver other than Cale Yarborough ever won as many as three consecutive championships. Johnson won five between 2006 and 2010. He leads the pack again this year.

How can that be possible in such a competitive sport, a sport with so much money at stake every week at every track? Even his fellow drivers don't seem to be able to come up with a good answer to what feels like a simple question.

Dallenbach (center) calling races for TNT.

"I can't answer that," Wally Dallenbach told me in a long phone interview, much of it spent singing Johnson's praises. Dallenbach finished in the top 10 more than 20 times during the course of a decade-plus career in NASCAR and now calls the action on TNT.

But even he was hard pressed to pinpoint the secret to Johnson's success.

"I don't know what he's doing over there, but believe me—if I did, I'd be canning it and making a lot of money right now. He's one of the greats. You can't say he isn't with the record he has. To what he's done in modern times, which in my opinion are much tougher than it ever was back in the 70s and 80s, that's a huge accomplishment."

In other sports, this is a much easier question to answer.

You only need to watch LeBron James for a couple of games to understand exactly why the NBA champion is such a remarkable athlete. Likewise, a ball hurtling toward the plate at 95 miles per hour helps immediately explain the secret to Justin Verlander's success.

With race car drivers, the athleticism and skill isn't so readily apparent.

None of us can fly down the court like LeBron. A baseball doesn't launch from our hand like it's been shot out of a cannon. But anyone can drive a car. Why is it that Jimmie Johnson can do it so much better, not just than you or I, but than his peers as well?

Earnhardt Jr. believes it was Johnson's time driving trucks on dirt tracks that gives him an edge. The dynamics more closely resemble a Cup car than the kind of setups and automobiles, for example, used in Formula One and other open-wheeled racing.

But, in truth, successful drivers come from a myriad of racing backgrounds.

Life inside a race car.

To Dallenbach, it all comes down to focus. Most of us can't even watch an athletic competition without getting up for a bathroom break, a snack and checking our email a hundred times an hour.

A driver like Johnson has to be on point for hours at a time. He and his team operate in a zero-defect environment. One tiny error, human or mechanical, can be the difference between total success and utter failure.

"You have to concentrate so hard at the job at hand. You have to concentrate for hours at a time, because if you don't, you're going to wreck," Dallenbach said. "If you break that concentration, even a little bit, you're either in the wall or you just got passed by three guys. You're so focused in that after a race you're just drained. There's so much stuff going on , so much that you have to process during a 400 or 500 mile race. And you don't get a lot of breaks. It's a busy time in that race car during a Cup race."

And then there's the car and the team. More than any other athlete, a driver is just the tip of the spear, a product of his team and his gear.

"Our sport is very equipment-based," Dallenbach concedes. "You can't discard how important your stuff is. How important your pit stops are. You make one bad call or have one little mistake, whether the driver causes it or it's on pit lane, it takes forever to make up for it."

For Johnson's number 48 Chevy, and for every race car for that matter, success starts on the shop floor at the gleaming Hendrick Motorsports headquarters in Concord, N.C. It's there that they piece together and test the cars Johnson will drive on Sundays.

But multiple cars come from the same shop, including Earnhardt Jr's and Kasey Kahne's. And while they—like Johnson's most successful teammate Gordon—have had great performances, only Johnson has won week after week, year after year.

Dallenbach says that helps pinpoint another key to Johnson's continued success—his crew chief.

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"Chad Knaus," Dallenbach said. "I just think Chad is a genius when it comes to setting up race cars and staying up on the race track. I've got a tremendous amount of respect for him and what he can do with a race car. That's not taking anything away from Jimmie Johnson. But when you're driving for a guy like Chad, you're getting the best out there.

"Jimmie and Chad complement each other. It's a very unique partnership. You only see it once in awhile. When you have that combination, a guy who can run a race car and a guy who can give him a race car week after week that can win races, it's not going to be easy to knock them off the top."

"These guys are making history," Dallenbach continued. "It's incredible that they've done what they've done year after year. He's one of the best there's ever been." 

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