<
>

Johnson's team prepares for finale

CONCORD, N.C. -- It's Tuesday morning at Hendrick Motorsports and the sprawling campus just north of Charlotte is about to come alive. The sun is breaking to the east, rising over nearby Charlotte Motor Speedway, and the parking lot of the massive race shop that houses the team of Jimmie Johnson is beginning to light.

"Here they come!"

The shout pierces the quiet. The stillness that vanishes won't return until more than 12 hours from now. But even the return of the darkness won't bring relief from the tension.

That won't come for five more days. You see, this isn't just any old Tuesday. This is Tuesday of Championship Week. There is one race remaining in the seemingly never-ending NASCAR Sprint Cup season, Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The leader of the championship fight is Johnson, holding a 28-point lead over Matt Kenseth and 34 over Kevin Harvick in the Sprint Cup standings with only 400 miles left to race.

In five days, everyone currently en route to work at this shop hopes to be celebrating Johnson's sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup title. But until then, the tension will continue to hang over everything they do. And there is a lot to do.

6:46 a.m.

"Here they come!" was a warning that an 18-wheeler was rolling into the parking lot. It's the blue-and-white striped team transporter of the Lowe's Racing team, bringing back the race car that Johnson raced to a pole position and a third-place finish at Phoenix International Raceway.

Hauler drivers Kyle Bazzell and Chad Kohn have made the 2,100-mile trek in just under 36 hours. They pull the rig in behind the building and carefully back it in. Within minutes everything packed inside is pulled out -- like a giant multi-ton Swiss Army knife -- and cleaned.

6:48 a.m.

Chad Knaus' Chevy SUV pulls into the parking lot mere moments after his Phoenix race car.

He is dressed more like a stock trader than a crew chief, in a pressed blue shirt and a tan sport coat. Almost on cue, a building full of employees begins to fill the parking lot around him. Mechanics, maintenance, public relations -- everyone sticks to their normal routine as if it is a Tuesday in August or March. Even if they all know that this week is anything but normal.

"We try to operate the same every week so that when the Chase [NASCAR's 10-race postseason] does come, it's not anything out of the norm," the 42-year-old Knaus says as he flicks on his computer. "The goal is make sure that it feels all about the same."

He then fires up the video of last year's season finale, also at Homestead-Miami, to refresh his memory concerning tendencies, patterns and strategies he employed in that race that might be applied this year. The perfectionist is proud of his five Cups with Johnson, but is still dogged by memories of the Cup that got away. A loose lug nut on a pit stop and then a failed rear-end gear essentially allowed rival Brad Keselowski to run away with the title last season.

"Every little edge you might see from one year could be what ensures we don't have the same outcome again," Knaus said.

7:15 a.m.

"C'mon … c'mon …"

Calvin Teague sits on the floor of the gym in the Hendrick Motorsports Human Performance Center.

The rear-tire changer for the No. 48 team doesn't even realize he's talking aloud as he grunts through one of the stops on the pit crew's circuit of workout exercises. He holds a long, heavy, black rope in each hand. Connected to the base of a nearby post, the ropes look like something off an old merchant marine dock.

He whips the heavy ropes into waves as they thwap onto the floor. The movements build strength along his shoulders, back and core, all crucial as he launches himself off the pit wall, air wrench in hand, and slides to his knees to whir-whir-whir-whir-whir five lug nuts off a used tire and then do it again to bolt on a new one.

Like most of his teammates, Teague is a former college athlete. Much of his time on the Hendrick campus is spent as it was during his days as a pitcher for Appalachian State, with strength and conditioning coaches in the gym and, when dinged up, with trainers in the recovery room.

"This organization, this team, is much like my Yankees used to be," says Hendrick Motorsports head athletic trainer Gene Monahan, who served in the same capacity with the New York Yankees for 49 years. "We came here for one reason, and that's to win. The atmosphere here during a week like this feels exactly like it did at Yankee Stadium. This is business around here."

8:15 a.m.

"OK, guys, you can talk about your trades and dealings later … "

Greg Morin and Lance Munksgard, the pit crew coaches for the 48 team, sit at the head of the table in the pit crew's film room. It looks identical to any position meeting room at any NFL or NCAA football facility. Only these coaches are trying to shut down the football talk because the team members won't stop discussing their fantasy football rosters.

Once focused, the seven-man team starts to examine the stack of papers waiting on them. On Monday, Morin and Munksgard went through video of each of the pit stops from the previous day's race at Phoenix. They have broken down each stop by position and time. Every fraction of a second lost or gained is recorded and shared with the group. Then each stop is projected onto a screen on one end of the room. There are angles shot from a small camera mounted on a pole that hangs directly over the pit stall, and there are shots from lipstick cameras mounted on the crewmen's helmets.

Looking at the first pit stop, they all see a near-disaster. As they jumped off the wall and sprinted around the corners of the car, an air hose came within a fraction of an inch of getting hung up underneath the splitter that hangs below the nose of the Chevy. It's a problem that befell their closest championship rival, Matt Kenseth and the No. 20 team, at Phoenix and cost him dearly.

The 48 crew continues to watch film and talks about everything from the angle of the gas can during refueling, to clouds of brake dust at Phoenix, to a nagging right-foot injury that's causing one member to alter his initial jump onto pit road for each stop. And yes, they go back over that costly pit stop from Homestead one year ago.

"At this stage of the year, the mental aspect of it is so huge," explains front tire-changer Cam Waugh. "Doing all the stuff we do before races, building the muscle memory helps out. But once the race starts and you're back doing pit stops, the majority of it's mental."

8:32 a.m.

"How about that Cardinal!"

Andy Papathanassiou (Andy Papa for short) played offensive tackle for Stanford in the late 1980s and is still basking in the glow of his alma mater's win over then No. 3-ranked Oregon.

Hendrick's director of human performance, Papa came to Hendrick Motorsports two decades ago, working with revolutionary crew chief Ray Evernham on ways to improve the performance of Jeff Gordon's pit stops (Knaus was on those crews as a tire-changer).

It was Papa who first started implementing football-style film work and athletic training, and then he started recruiting college athletes. At first, he was laughed at. Now those who used to poke fun at those methods consider them standard operating procedure.

Papa watches the 48 crew practice pit stops in a covered area behind the building where they had just watched film. They do individual drills and then crank out multiple full-team pit stops, all in the sub-13-second range.

"We will run the scenarios that we think we'll have at Homestead," explains Munksgard, who used to go over the wall for race teams such as Ultra Motorsports of NASCAR's Camping World Truck Series.

He notes that Sunday's race will be more "traditional," meaning there is less likelihood of two-tire or fuel-only pit stops in the name of strategy. "If you were here in March or April, we'd be making much bigger moves to get better. By now, it's all small stuff. Tiny little hand adjustments. Being patient when trying to fix a problem."

As patient as one can be changing four tires and filling a tank with two cans of fuel in 12 seconds.

"Exactly."

11:45 a.m.

Jimmie Johnson looks plenty patient. In fact, the all-smiles racer looks like a man relaxed enough that he could climb into one of his old race cars on display nearby and take a nap. He's in the Hendrick Motorsports Museum, where he has stopped by to chat with team president Marshall Carlson, who has just described the 48 team to an ESPN TV crew as being "on kill."

In keeping with the "just another day" philosophy, Johnson spent his morning sitting in the carpool line at his daughter's preschool before coming to the Hendrick campus for the weekly competition meeting. Once that's done, he'll scoot back south to Charlotte to take his daughter to her dance lesson.

Yes, he is well aware of the points scenarios it will take to win the Cup. He's been there so many times before. He has arrived at nearly every season finale of his 12-year career with a shot to end the day as champion. It should all feel so familiar. And it does. But only to a point.

"You want to have the points lead so that you control your own destiny, but it's the most stressful and pressure-packed situation you could ever ask for," he says in a tone that sounds nothing like a man feeling pressure. "I've got what I want.

"Now I just have to go down there and try to hold onto it and make stuff happen."

Noon

Just as it happens every Tuesday around lunchtime, the drivers, crew chiefs and key team executives gather for the Hendrick Motorsports competition meeting in the HMS headquarters building at the center of the HMS campus.

There, the four teams of Johnson, Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne review the previous race and talk about the upcoming event. They exchange ideas and reveal information they think might help the entire group.

Of particular interest this week is Gordon's performance at Homestead in 2012. While Johnson was focused on winning the Cup, his onetime mentor was on his way to an impressive win, struggling early but closing strong to defeat Kyle Busch.

"The days of guys withholding information are long gone," explains HMS general manager Doug Duchardt. "This is totally open-book.

"All data is out there for all to use. You hear about teams fighting and all that. We've taken the opposite approach here for a long time. And it's paid off."

1:40 p.m.

On the shop floor, a sparkling new Lowe's Chevy is up on blocks, and no less than six men are crawling all over it and all inside it.

This is the race car that Johnson will pilot at Homestead and, they hope, will never be raced again because it will be placed a few buildings over in the Hendrick Motorsports Museum as the car that won the team's sixth Cup.

Yes, that would be cool. But it would also be a shame.

"This is the car we won Texas with two weeks ago," says car chief Ron Malec, who has been with the team since its inception.

Knaus' right-hand man, Malec is responsible for making sure that all the data gathered by HMS engineers, via computer simulation and a Homestead test session two weeks earlier, is correctly translated and dialed into the car's chassis before it is loaded onto the team hauler -- which has already been cleaned -- and sent south.

This car -- Chassis No. 797 -- didn't just win at Texas. It delivered one of the most complete one-race beatdowns in recent NASCAR memory.

After that win, the car was sent to NASCAR's Research and Development Center for a thorough postrace technical inspection. One week ago today, Malec's team was told it could come get the car and bring it back home.

In the days since, the chassis was stripped bare, cleaned, reconstructed, repainted and sent to the floor to receive its pre-Homestead tweaking.

"All of our cars come off the same assembly line, but sometimes one just has something special in it," Malec says, motioning to No. 797, which also ran extremely well at Charlotte and Dover earlier this season. "We need to get one more special race out of it."

4:30 p.m.

Officially, the race shop is closing.

Truthfully, there is still plenty of work being done behind the card key-protected doors.

The hauler is cleaned and already in the process of being reloaded, set to make the nearly 800-mile trip to South Florida on Thursday.

Chassis No. 797 is nearly through Malec's lengthy prerace checklist. The pit crew members have headed home with instructions from Monahan about how to have their soreness worked out by Sunday. Knaus is watching the 2012 Homestead race. Again.

And Jimmie Johnson is at dance practice.