48 crew thrives on race-day chaos

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Friday was what Jimmie Johnson's Sprint Cup team calls "thrash day," a time when crew members run around the garage in organized chaos to switch the No. 48 car from race trim to qualifying trim and back to race trim between trips through NASCAR's inspection stations.

They barely have time to catch their breath, going over every inch of the car like a surgeon would a patient before and after a major operation.

They are doing things --which mostly that go unnoticed or unseen by fans in the stands or those watching on television -- that have put their driver in position for an unprecedented fourth straight championship.

"Friday at the racetrack is our hardest," car chief Ron Malec said as he took a rare break at Phoenix International Raceway. "A lot of people don't realize what goes into it."

Until last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.

Johnson's team took thrashing to a new level after the Lap 3 crash that almost destroyed Friday's effort. In just over an hour, the time it took to run 112 laps, the team completely reconstructed the car to get it back on the track to salvage 15 precious points.

Were it not for their effort, Johnson's lead going into Sunday's race would be 58 instead of 73. It doesn't sound like much until you consider they lost the 2004 title by eight points to Kurt Busch.

These are the unsung heroes behind Johnson, the ones who make him look good even when things are bad. They are the offensive linemen, the men who work tirelessly in the trenches but seldom if ever get recognized.

So let me introduce them to you: Mike Atwell, mechanic, Kirksville, Tenn.; Kyle Bazzell, truck driver, Fairburg, Ill.; John Boydston, engine tuner, Owsego, N.Y.; Marcia Bradshaw, scorer, Charlotte, N.C.; Andy Brown, mechanic/rear tire changer, Jamestown, N.Y.; Joe Claridge, mechanic, Barrington, N.H.; Ken Gober, truck driver, Manchester, N.H.; Rich Gutierrez, mechanic/gas man, Yorba Linda, Calif.; Greg Ives, engineer, Bark River, Mich.; Mike Knauer, mechanic/catch can, Cambridge, Md.; Mike Lingerfelt, mechanic/front tire changer, Greenville, S.C.; Jon Lucas, rear tire changer, Cary, N.C.; Pete Michel, shock specialist, Cobleskill, N.Y.; Zack Miller, tire specialist, Mission Viejo, Calif.; Doug Morgan, backup pit crewman, Newport News, Va.; Greg Morin, pit crew coach, Waltham, Mass.; Cody Plemmons, engineer, Charlotte, N.C.; Marc Puchalski, mechanic, San Jose, Calif.; Kenneth Purcell, mechanic/jackman, Savannah, Ga.; Art Simmons, chassis set-up, Kirksville, Mo.

There were several from other Hendrick Motorsports teams as well, such as Jason Burdett, the car chief for Jeff Gordon.

"It was amazing what they did," Malec said.

Amazing, indeed. The entire right front suspension and right rear quarter panel had to be replaced. The entire rear had to be pulled out, replaced and fitted to mesh with the new tire placement because "things were bent or broken so badly."

The steering had to be welded back to the chassis.

The car was so beaten and bent when it arrived in the garage that crew chief Chad Knaus was ready to load up and go home. But Johnson wasn't ready to call it a day, and neither were his crew members.

Johnson was so adamant about returning to the track that he never left the driver's seat. From there he got a bird's-eye view of the efforts that even he seldom sees because of other obligations during the week and on race weekends.

"They took a lot of pride in making sure that car was sound," said Johnson, who will start third Sunday. "I could see it in their eyes as they were running to and from the toolbox and hear the anxious voices they all had on the radio.

"Man, they were doing everything they could."

From the smallest job of running parts and pieces from the hauler to the largest of rewelding major components, everyone pitched in. They didn't do it for the headlines. They did it because, as Boydston said, it was their job.

"As crew members we don't look for a lot of recognition," Boydston said. "Getting that car back out there, it actually was fun for us."

They made what seemed a surreal 60 or so minutes for Johnson -- and his fans, who wondered how much of his 184-point lead would disappear -- look routine.

"You don't have time to realize what it felt like or what happened until you get home and look at the car and see what you fixed and realize, 'Wow, that thing was messed up more than we thought it was,' " Claridge said.

They took a lot of pride in making sure that car was sound. I could see it in their eyes as they were running to and from the toolbox and hear the anxious voices they all had on the radio. Man, they were doing everything they could.

-- Jimmie Johnson

It wasn't until then that Claridge & Co. realized just what Johnson meant when he talked about how hard it was to maintain NASCAR's minimum speed around the 1.5-mile track for a 38th-place finish.

"Jimmie's awesome," Claridge said with a laugh. "To drive a car that is that screwed up and be that good … when you look at the car afterwards you're like, 'Man, we worked our butts off to make sure it's right and it's that screwed up and it's still that fast.'"

That crew members from the teams of Mark Martin and Gordon -- the two drivers who had the most to gain from Johnson's misfortune ranked second and third in points -- pitched in symbolized the entire spirit of HMS.

"It was great to turn around and be under the cars and see a guy from the 88 [Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s team] and 24 and 5 helping you," Claridge said. "When you look around and have guys from another team that you know, that know what has to be done and you don't have to say anything, that's nice."

This is why team owner Rick Hendrick gives bonuses to members of all four of his teams when one wins, why when one team wins the championship all share the wealth.

"It shows Hendrick Motorsports is a complete team," Boydston said. "It's not the 48, 24, 5 and 88 as separate teams. Had the No. 5 or anybody else wrecked, we would go help them.

"That's the way Mr. Hendrick and the people in our organization want it to be."

That's why Johnson is on track to set history, why HMS is on verge of a ninth championship in 15 years.

"I don't know what they do at other organizations," Gordon said. "I just know that the lights basically don't ever get turned off at Hendrick Motorsports. The people never stop working."

That the efforts Sunday were called thrashing is a bit ironic. By definition, thrashing is "a beating, especially a severe one."

This wasn't a defeat. This was a victory, as much as a 38th-place finish can be called one.

Without that effort Johnson and Knaus, the ones who get the headlines each week, might be much more uptight over the last two races. Instead, they exude the confidence that put them in this position.

"We've lost some championships by not being so prepared," Malec said. "Like at Homestead in 2005, we crashed. We learned from all of that. That's why we were so prepared last Sunday when that happened.

"If it comes down to that 10 to 15 points we gained in that race that decided the title, that would be amazing. But we're going to feel special no matter what. We don't need our names mentioned. We know we're a part of this team, and that's all we need to feel good."

But like the offensive linemen on a football team, sometimes they deserve special recognition.

Last Sunday was one of those times.

"It sucks we had to do it," Boydston said. "It sucks that it was at the point it was in the Chase. But I had a good time. When we all got on the airplane to go home, we were laughing and joking, talking about all the things we were doing to get it fixed.

"It definitely was interesting."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.