CONCORD, N.C. -- They arrived at Martinsville Speedway in 2002 wearing fire suits with Velcro name tags. Nobody knew for sure if they would be there the next week, much less the next season. The pressure for Jimmie Johnson's first-year team to succeed was incredible.
"If somebody wasn't performing they could rip off the name and hand it to the next guy," said Ron Malec, a mechanic and tire carrier for the No. 48.
Engine tuner Danny Emerick nodded his head.
"We had to succeed," he said.
It wasn't until midway through that season, when crew members were given a second fire suit, that the names were embroidered onto the fabric. It was, as Emerick said, "the symbol that we had made the cut, like American Idol or something."
Shock specialist Todd Bosserman interrupted.
"Mine had Velcro for two years," he said with a laugh. "We definitely were scared for our jobs for a while. But we all made it. We're all still here."
Meet the survivors of Johnson's rookie road crew: Malec, Emerick and Bosserman, along with crew chief Chad Knaus, are the only members who have been with the two-time defending Sprint Cup champion from the beginning.
They don't get the headlines, but their experience and leadership are a big reason Johnson is in position with five races left in the season to become the first driver since Cale Yarborough (1976-78) to win three straight titles.
"Those guys are definitely the backbone," Knaus said as he studied charts in the back of the No. 48 hauler. "When we started this thing we had a group of guys that were pretty young. Everybody had something to prove, to show their worth and stock.
"It's good to have guys like that. They know how you act. They know maybe when you bring in another new guy to teach them what's going on with the team and protocol. They've been very, very important."
Yet few outside the immediate racing community know their names any better than an offensive lineman is known in football.
"Like I always tell Ron, I would be a bad famous person," Emerick said.
Continuity has long been a trademark of Hendrick Motorsports' success. Crew chief Ray Evernham and Jeff Gordon were together for Gordon's first seven seasons, winning 47 races and three championships.
"In any business the key is keeping people together so the chemistry is there and they all think alike," team owner Rick Hendrick said. "They know the weaknesses of each other and they know the strengths and they try to get better every year."
Evernham said one of the things he's most proud of was keeping Gordon's road crew, which became known as the "Rainbow Warriors," intact the entire time. He applauds Knaus for keeping his core group together.
"In this business, that's very difficult to hold the team together that long and keep them motivated for what you have to do to win championships," said Evernham, who left HMS in 2000 to form his own organization.
Legendary crew chief Dale Inman said continuity was a big reason he and Richard Petty won seven titles together.
"The more you know about each other the easier it makes it on everybody," said Inman, who won an eighth title in 1996 with Terry Labonte at HMS. "It got to where it was scary how much we thought alike."
What Johnson's team has done since the Chase began in 2004 is almost scary. In 45 races he has 33 top-10s and 12 wins. He's finished 14th or better in 21 consecutive Chase races.
In the final five races of the Chase, Johnson has eight wins, 14 top-5s and only two finishes outside the top 10 in 20 events.
That isn't likely to end at Martinsville, where Johnson has 11 straight top-10s, including four wins and nine top-5s.
Johnson said having a strong core in Knaus, Malec, Emerick and Bosserman is "a huge part of what has gone on."
"It's just having the folks that know how each other think and not trying to work a new guy in or change the culture of the team," Hendrick said. "One of the biggest assets the 48 team has is their tenure together and the fact that they've been through about every situation there is."
Overcast skies. Leaves in full autumn color. Winding roads.
All those things are reminders of that dreary Sunday in 2004 when a Hendrick Motorsports plane crashed into the side of Bull Mountain on the way to the October race at Martinsville. They are reminders that all 10 passengers were killed, including Hendrick's son and brother.
"You just remember things about that weekend that ring a bell," Emerick said. "Over time we have ways of honoring them and dealing with that stuff, but when it's time to get down to work we're all business."
Johnson won that day and again the following week at Atlanta to give him three in a row. He finished with a sixth at Phoenix, a victory at Darlington and a second at Homestead-Miami, losing the title to Kurt Busch by only eight points, after trailing by 227 entering Martinsville.
Adversity. That's what Johnson's road crew is best at dealing with. From the tragedy of Martinsville to a pair of six-week suspensions for Knaus to rallying from a 156-point deficit in the 2006 Chase, they thrive on challenges.
"We've bonded in pain and celebration," Knaus said. "Over the course of the years everybody has realized that no matter what happens, good, bad or indifferent, we've got each other's backs.
"When they come in and feel somebody is standing behind them, and that carries a lot of weight. That's why this team is as successful as it is."
Kevin Harvick of Richard Childress Racing, who has a longtime relationship with crew chief Todd Berrier, understands.
"Stability is a key factor in a lot of things," he said. "That's important that people know when you're in a bad mood or a good mood and know really who you are as a person."
Malec, Emerick and Bosserman are go-to guys on Johnson's team. They play a big role in picking new team members because they understand what Knaus and the organization wants. Younger and less experienced teammates often seek their advice and guidance.
When Knaus was suspended for six races to start the 2006 season, they helped hold things together for interim crew chief Darian Grubb. The team responded with five top-10s and two wins, including the Daytona 500.
"We've seen the ups and downs so much that it really does help having guys like us that have been on the team for so long," Malec said. "You look around the garage and it seems teams switch to another driver or they'll put a crew chief with a different team. Then you lose all that insight as far as what crew chiefs expect, how they want things.
"We understand the pressures and can pass that along to others that haven't been with us for as long."
Bosserman said it's like being in a war.
"Somebody falls down, we pick them up and keep going," he said.
The three have been dealing with the pressure almost from the outset. Johnson was first in points with seven races remaining in his rookie season.
"So at a pretty young age we learned what all this is about," Emerick said.
Johnson felt a lot of pressure in those earlier years. He said leading the points was more of a burden because everybody had their sights on you.
Now he thrives on the spotlight, and the team behind him is a big reason.
"I feel myself and this team is much stronger," he said. "We are really enjoying being a leader, and we have a lot of confidence we can win this championship.
"We're not worried and stressing on things we can't control."
Emerick laughed when he recalled Johnson's first trip to Martinsville.
"We couldn't get out of our own way," he said. "We were terrible."
Johnson never got a handle on the car. He started 14th and finished 35th, completing only 446 of 500 laps.
"That's when the rookieness of all of us showed," Emerick said. "We learned this is really tough."
But like they do with most things, they turned a negative into a positive. Johnson finished sixth when he returned that October, starting a run of top-10s that continued through the spring race this season when he was fourth.
"When they have a weak spot they don't just say, 'OK, we're not going to be very good there, we'll go work on where we're good,'" Hendrick said. "They hit it as hard as they can to get better, and Jimmie will test, test, test, test, test.
"After Vegas this year, they just said, 'Hey, we gotta go figure this thing out.' And they just tested. They threw all their notes away and went back to basics and tried new things and just refused to give up. Martinsville motivated them the same way."
In many ways, Johnson's crew has grown more from its struggles than from its successes.
"The biggest thing we try to carry over is what we instilled from Day 1, that we're all in this together," Emerick said. "When the new guys come in we try to carry that over to them.
"It's like a family tree with deep roots."
In the beginning
When Johnson made his Cup debut in the 2001 October race at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, the only people more nervous than Johnson were his crew.
Other than Johnson and Malec, who had been together in the Nationwide Series, nobody knew each other.
"We were all green," Emerick said. "It was really suggested by [sponsor] Lowe's that we had to come through for them. They didn't want to miss races. They didn't want to be embarrassed.
"We didn't have time to like or dislike each other. We were all just focused on doing the best job we could."
Johnson entered three races at the end of that season. He finished 39th at LMS, 25th at Homestead and 29th at Atlanta.
"The good thing was we had a group that all got along very well," Malec said. "No one had an attitude."
We've bonded in pain and celebration. Over the course of the years everybody has realized that no matter what happens, good, bad or indifferent, we've got each other's backs.
-- Chad Knaus
Expectations weren't all that high as Johnson began his rookie season. Then he won the pole for the Daytona 500 and finished 15th. After a 28th at Rockingham, he reeled off five straight top-10s to rank third in points.
"After that it was like that's what's been expected of us," Malec said. "That's the kind of tempo we have to keep all the time."
Nobody wanted to be the weak link then, and no one does now.
"It's not odd for one of us to question somebody's mentality on something real quick if we know that's not the right way," Emerick said. "I've been around teams that weren't like that, so I didn't want to be that guy that wasn't giving a hundred percent."
Malec, Emerick and Bosserman all have been keys to maintaining that tempo. Malec is the energizer, keeping the team on its toes so it can make that extra lap in practice or have more time to work on the setup.
"I have had Ron working on my race car since I have driven a stock car," Johnson said. "It is comforting to know his watchful eyes are over it. I know him so well, I don't have to worry about anything."
"Ron brings all of the aggressiveness to the team, a hurry-up-and-get-it-done attitude," he said.
Emerick is more of a people person, the softer side of Malec. If there's a problem with somebody on the team he often handles it. He also is one of the best engine tuners in the business.
"And one of the most methodical people I've ever met in my life," Knaus said. "He is the epitome of details. I know when Danny is doing a job it is completely, 100 percent thorough."
Bosserman is a thinker, particularly when it comes to ideas outside the box.
"His out-of-the-box mentality is a huge asset," Knaus said. "Todd has come up with a lot of great things to put on the car to make it go faster. And he pays attention to what other guys are doing. He's not always hands-on at the track, but he's always making a contribution."
That happened in September when Bosserman noticed an obscure leak that could have proved detrimental on race day. The crew fixed it and Johnson won the race.
Bosserman didn't get credit then, and he doesn't want it now.
"We're all more friends than co-workers," Bosserman said. "Your road crew has to be. You have to get along and watch each other's back. That's how the whole team has always been since we were so scared for our jobs.
"Once you make that bond, you're good."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.