Johnson's success has been fueled by change
December 18, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
In retrospect, perhaps it should come as no surprise that Jimmie Johnson won his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship in the same season the Generation-6 car was introduced. Because at NASCAR's highest level, there's no team that thrives more on change.
On the surface, that seems difficult to believe -- the No. 48 team does, after all, feature a driver in Johnson and a crew chief in Chad Knaus who have been inseparable since they were first paired prior to the 2002 campaign, and in the decade since have set the standard for excellence. Week after week, race after race, and season after season, fans see the same things -- Johnson behind the wheel, Knaus atop the pit box, and that blue Chevrolet near the front -- and make the natural assumption that nothing has changed. Shake things up a little, they often wonder, and then we'll see what Johnson is made of.
Well, in truth, Johnson has rarely experienced a bigger shakeup on his race team than he did for this past season, and the results speak for themselves. No question Matt Kenseth deserved every accolade he received for thriving in a new environment, falling 19 points short of becoming the first driver to win a championship in his inaugural season with a new team since Darrell Waltrip did it with Junior Johnson and Associates in 1981. But this was hardly the same No. 48 team that battled Brad Keselowski down to the wire a year ago.
Johnson and Knaus were still around, of course. But Knaus' longtime top engineer, Greg Ives, left to become crew chief for Regan Smith at JR Motorsports in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. The team added Dave Elenz, who had been the second engineer on the No. 88 team of Dale Earnhardt Jr., the No. 48's stable mate at Hendrick Motorsports. There were two new mechanics, a new tire specialist and a trio of new over-the-wall crewmen. In fact, for all the No. 48 team's renowned consistency, there are only three men who have been with the program for its entire run -- Johnson, Knaus, and car chief Ron Malec, who was a mechanic for Johnson during their days in the American Speed Association.
In truth, this is a program that's succeeded to a historic degree despite remaking itself again and again and again, with only a few key pieces remaining intact throughout. All those championships don't make the No. 48 team immune to natural turnover, like team members wanting to get off the road or leave the industry, people getting older, new faces breaking in, the natural ebb and flow of a sport that's constantly in motion even at this time of year. But in the case of Johnson's team, it still appears seamless, which not only says something about Knaus' ability as a manager, but also makes all those accomplishments seem all the more impressive.
As much as beating opponents on the race track, the No. 48 team feeds off this stuff. Knaus said as much after the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, back when his firesuit was still soaked with champagne.
"Coming into this year we had changes, a lot of changes. It was good," he said. "We had some guys that wanted to come off the road, get married. We had Greg Ives, my right-hand man for years, got a chance to be a crew chief with Regan Smith. So things change. I think that's one thing that has helped this team. Throughout the course of our careers, we haven't been afraid to change. I've said it time and time again, that you either have to change the personality or change the person. We've been very fortunate that a lot of people on the 48 have moved on to bigger and better. That allows us to bring in new, fresh people. When you're able to bring in new, fresh people into a proven commodity, you get some spice, you get some life. We're very fortunate to have that this year."
Next season, most everyone on the No. 48 team should remain in place -- Knaus said at Champion’s Week that the only anticipated change is the addition of an engineer from JR Motorsports to replace someone who's decided to leave the industry. But many of Johnson's over-the-wall crewmen are still just in their 20s.
"When all those guys get comfortable in their skin, they're only going to get better," Knaus said of all his recent additions. "They're only going to get stronger. It's going to be really impressive when these guys really start clicking. It's going to be good."
This from a team that's coming off its sixth championship in eight years, mind you. Of course, the last time Knaus lost his top engineer -- 2008, when Darian Grubb departed to become Tony Stewart's crew chief -- the No. 48 won the title the next season, too. It becomes natural to wonder if the success and continuous remaking of this race team are somehow connected, if the change prevents everyone from becoming as comfortable as we on the outside think they should be after accumulating a jewelry box full of championship rings.
Listening to Knaus address the subject at Champion’s Week, you start to realize the No. 48 team thrives not despite the changes, but because of them.
"I feel like when you make a change … it makes you stronger, it makes you have to be stronger. When you work with somebody for a long time, you take them for granted, you know they're handling this, they're handling that, and sometimes you can get kind of blurry as to exactly what you want," the crew chief said in Las Vegas.
"When you get new guys and gals like that, you have to be very, very specific about what you want, what your guidelines are, what directives you give. When they ask you a question, you have to go back and think -- OK, why is it that I do this? And understand, so when you give an answer, you're giving the real answer. Because over a period of time, it’s like, 'Oh, we do it that way. That’s the way we've always done it.' And when a guy's like, 'Why do you do that?' -- I don't know. Let me go back and look. Then I have to go back and dig, and that makes me work harder. So I like that. I like new talent."
No wonder, then, Johnson prevailed once again in a season that saw not only several changes on his No. 48 team, but also to the car he was driving. In all honesty, we should have seen this coming -- when the previous Sprint Cup car was phased in, no team handled the implementation better than Hendrick and the No. 48, which won the title that year as well. Major changes like the implementation of the more brand-identifiable Generation-6 vehicle play right to the No. 48 team's strengths, something Johnson made no secret of when he first tested the car at Martinsville last year.
"I know that we rise to the occasion when there are new challenges," he said then. That much is clearly evident by the six sterling silver trophies he now has on his mantle, collected over eight years of near-constant change within both his sport and his race team, and during which the primary common denominator has been success.