The first thing one notices upon a visit to the sprawling Hendrick Motorsports complex in Concord, N.C, on the outskirts of Charlotte, is how clean every nook and cranny of the place is.
In the rooms where they build and test the engines, it looks like you could eat off the floors—or off the top of any of the engines that arranged in perfect order all around.
That may seem to have very little to do with why driver Jimmie Johnson just wrapped up his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, but it actually has everything to do with it.
To understand how Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have racked up six titles in the last eight years, you have to understand the behemoth that is Hendrick Motorsports, where no detail is too tiny and no area of the shop is left unscrubbed. Ever.
Then you have to separate the No. 48 Chevrolet team from the rest of the Hendrick pack, because there are subtle differences that clearly set them apart from the teams of fellow HMS drivers Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne. Johnson's team is the best—not just at Hendrick, but in all of NASCAR.
Here is why.
Attention to Detail
The reason all the buildings and grounds at Hendrick are so sparkling is a direct reflection of a company philosophy where no detail is considered too trivial to address, no lead for more speed in the race cars is left unexplored by a team of talented engineers, mechanics and crew chiefs.
And while they always make sure every square inch of the complex is in order, they never lose sight of their single-minded purpose. Everyone is there to see that the cars that roll out and head to the race track each week are as fast as they possibly can be.
The Chad-Jimmie Chemistry
Johnson and Knaus have been together now for 12 years. They've not only captured six of the 11 Cup championships earned by Hendrick Motorsports overall, but they've actually come close to winning additional titles on several other occasions.
Folks tend to forget that in their first full season together in 2002, they finished fifth. They've never finished lower—ever. In their second season together, the last season before the current 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup format was adopted, they finished second. So for critics to suggest that Johnson and Knaus could not have won titles without the Chase, well, that's hogwash.
Johnson and Knaus have had their rough patches, but they've worked through them. Perhaps they learned by watching how Gordon once dominated much in the same fashion as they have, but not for as long, and then struggled to win more championships after Gordon parted ways with long-time crew chief Ray Evernham. And obviously no other driver-crew chief tandem has learned how to plan a more effective way to attack the Chase.
Commitment from Mr. H
No one is more committed to the company's cause than owner Rick Hendrick, who employs more than 500 people under the Hendrick Motorsports banner and has seen the place grow from one building and 5,000 square feet when operations first began in 1984 to dozens of buildings spread across more than 100 acres today.
Hendrick understands the business of winning races and winning championships. Plus he has deep pockets enriched by his other automobile-related businesses, and he's willing to spend the money to employ the best people.
More importantly, Hendrick seems to completely grasp a simple notion that escapes so many other owners across all sports. When he hires the best people, he has a knack for putting them in positions where they best fit and then getting out of their way and letting them do the jobs for which they were hired.
The 48 team is paired with the No. 88 team of driver Earnhardt in one building at Hendrick, with the No. 24 team of driver Gordon and the No. 5 of driver Kasey Kahne housed in another. The crew chiefs and engineers and mechanics all work closely with one another in both shops.
Earnhardt used to tell a story about how when he first joined Hendrick he used to fall asleep in team meetings, or blow them off entirely, before Mr. Hendrick implored him to take a more vested interest. Soon Earnhardt was eating up all the information he could glean from Johnson, Gordon and the rest—and it arguably has made him into a better driver in 2013 than he was when he arrived at HMS in 2008.
Perhaps the best example of teamwork within the organization came during Johnson's 2010 title run, when with just two races to go Knaus pushed for a swapping of pit crews with the No. 24 team to improve pit-road performance for the 48. Some organizations would have been reluctant to yank a crew from a veteran driver like Gordon to help a teammate, but everyone involved knew it would give Johnson a better chance to secure another championship, so it was done.
Speaking of resources, did we mention the training complex that recently was built for the Hendrick pit crews? It is the best of its type in all of NASCAR, and would be the envy of many an NFL team.
It's a far cry from the days when Evernham arrived at HMS and had his pit crews train by hauling wheels—and sometimes even each other—around on their backs in the parking lot, according to NASCAR.com.
All race organizations have some very smart people working as engineers and technicians and mechanics. But none of them have more smart people happily employed than Hendrick, and more willing to go the extra mile to find ways to get the cars around the tracks faster.
Jimmie Johnson's Athleticism
Despite Donovan McNabb's recent suggestion to the contrary on Fox Sports Live via the Sporting News, Jimmie is an athlete. In fact, he's a triathlete several times over.
The fact that he is in such great shape helps Johnson inside the race car on long, hot summer days and toward the latter parts of seasons that stretch from February to nearly Thanksgiving and are by their very nature a long, hard grind both mentally and physically. When other drivers are tempted to check out—be it for a minute, a second or a single race—Johnson never seems to lose his composure or well-honed focus.
He's also perhaps the most talented driver the sport has ever seen, no offense intended to Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, David Pearson or any of the others who have graced NASCAR before him. Johnson is adept not only at winning races, but also at managing his seasons to where he knows which days he can aim for Victory Lane and which days he must coax an eighth-place finish out of a car that others would fume about and drive to a 15th-place finish.
Quite simply, Johnson drives like the multiple-time champion that he is. Every time out.
Follow Joe Menzer on Twitter @OneMenz