Trying to figure out the secret to Jimmie Johnson's success

Posted: November 22, 2013

WITH JIMMIE Johnson celebrating his sixth Sprint Cup championship in the last 8 years, the question many observers and I have is: Why aren't other top teams challenging his dominance?

Matt Kenseth mounted a serious threat this year, winning a series-high seven races and leading the Chase after five races. Then Johnson seized the lead and won by 19 points over Kenseth.

As a Cup crew chief with Greg Biffle and several others, Hatboro, Pa., native Greg Erwin had as good an opportunity as anyone outside Hendrick Motorsports to see what makes Johnson's No. 48 team click.

"Those guys exude confidence," Erwin said yesterday from Penske Racing headquarters in Mooresville, N.C. "As a group, they're always looking for new ways of trying to do something. The more success they have, the more confidence they have.

"Some [teams] think if they copy top-10 teams, they'll become a top-10 team. The 48 team thinks: 'Let's do things nobody's thought of.' "

Referring to Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief for the six-pack of championships, Erwin said, "Chad is given a lot of freedom to move people in and out of roles. They've had significant turnover [because] he's looking for the next guy to be a spark plug. It's like a stick-and-ball team: The best players play."

The Johnson team's swagger was evident before the Chase began, after he finished 40th, 36th, 28th and 40th in races leading into the Chase.

"They have confidence in each other and there's a trust [within the team]," Erwin said. "They expect to win. They are very committed and hard-driving."

Erwin thinks a top-level driver is a key to challenging Johnson's team.

"You can have the best crew chief and best team, but you won't win a championship without a capable driver," he said. "There are very capable championship-caliber drivers who are not realizing their potential. Either their team is slightly behind technologically or there's a communication problem."

It's also puzzling to some why Johnson's Hendrick teammates don't muscle their way into victory lane more often. Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a solid Chase, with five top-five finishes (three runners-up) and three other top-10s. A Chase-opening 35th place set him back, but he rallied to finish fifth in the Chase. Four-time Cup titlist Jeff Gordon, seeded last in the Chase, won at Martinsville in October and placed sixth in the Chase. Kasey Kahne was the 12th-ranked Chaser.

"The Hendrick playbook is right in front of all of them," Erwin said, noting that all four teams share information.

"We all have the same equipment," Johnson said. "We do develop our own styles, as far as a driver, a crew chief, the way we set our cars up. We kind of migrate off into different directions, although they are close together.

"We do end up with differences in our cars. That boils down to the crew chief and driver styles. The connection and communication between the driver and crew chief is really where that starts."

In other words, Johnson and Knaus are better at it than their teammates.

"I know the pairing of us, there's something magical there, and it works," Johnson said. "I say this confidently: I would not have the success I've had in this sport if it wasn't for Chad and our relationship."

Even the most in-tune business partners and devoted married couples have occasional disagreements. The impression is, when Johnson and Knaus have disputes, Knaus has the final say.

"When it comes to calling the race, I had an idea [at Homestead, Fla.] about our tire strategy," Johnson said. "I'm glad he didn't listen to me, because it played out completely the opposite, and he was right. I get to verbalize what I'm feeling in the race car, pass it along to him, let him decide on all the big topics. I'm basically good at being told what to do."

Johnson has won an astounding 24 of the 100 Chase races. Tony Stewart is second in Chase victories, with 11. Johnson's 66 career Cup victories, in 12 full seasons, place him eighth on the all-time list.

With Johnson within one title of tying Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. for the most Cup series championships, he and Knaus want to stay together several more years.

"I feel like this team is capable of a lot of great things," Johnson said. "There's still great years out ahead of us."

"They truly are a dynasty," Erwin said. "Our form of racing probably won't see anything like them again."

Erwin stays at Penske

This season, Erwin was the crew chief for former IndyCar racer Sam Hornish Jr. in the Nationwide Series. Hornish finished second, by only three points, to Austin Dillon in the title race.

With Penske lacking sponsorship for a second Nationwide team next year, Hornish has no ride right now. Erwin says he has been retained by Penske in a role to be determined. He'll serve as crew chief if a second Penske car enters some Nationwide races.


Email: fleiscb@phillynews.com

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