Long ago, in a tiny apartment in Pewaukee, Wis., over a hearty meal of Hamburger Helper, Jimmie Johnson talked about common goals with a mechanic on his American Speed Association team.
“We’d sit there just sit there and share dreams about wanting to race and wanting to race in NASCAR,” Johnson said, “and be champions in NASCAR.”
In the past 12 seasons, in the No. 48 team NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick built for Johnson and forged into one of the most dominant teams the sport has seen, Johnson has done just that.
In Sunday’s Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Johnson and his team have a chance to win their sixth championship in NASCAR’s premier series – one behind Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt, who each have seven, for most in NASCAR history.
Only three people have remained with the No. 48 through its entire 12-year journey.
Johnson, the California-born face of the team, and crew chief Chad Knaus are the most well-known, for their consistent excellence and occasional run-ins with NASCAR inspectors.
The third? Wisconsin-native car chief Ron Malec, Johnson’s dinner companion all those years ago.
These days, Malec manages the team that works on the No. 48 cars at the Hendrick Motorsports complex during the week and at tracks across the country. He’s responsible for the preparation of the race car and getting it through technical inspection.
Then, he turns it over to Johnson and Knaus, to chase those goals laid out so long ago.
“That’s what really connected Ron and I together was our bond – the passion for racing,” Johnson said.
In an extensive interview with the Observer, Malec, 38, provided a behind-the-scenes look at the No. 48 team, how it operates, and the difficulty of maintaining the level of success the team expects.
‘We’re already there’
Johnson’s rivals often talk about how he and the No. 48 team take their performance to another level for NASCAR’s Chase.
But Malec said the goal is the same every week: To be the best – at all times.
“I think from the top down to the bottom, everyone sees our team and all the teams here as top-level teams, and we have to live up to the expectations of our organization,” he said. “It brings everyone to that level and keeps you there constantly throughout the entire season, not just at the end of the Chase.
“We race all year to get into the Chase, and then once we’re in the Chase, it’s like you’re already at that level and you don’t have to bring it up a notch, we’re already there.”
Malec isn’t surprised only three men have remained with the No. 48 from its inception.
“There is a pronounced pressure around our team that’s hard to explain, but it comes with being at the top of the game every week,” he said. “It’s big shoes to fill, and like I say, the best thing for a new guy coming in is just make them feel at ease. Make the pressure less for them somehow.”
Some find the intensity and pressure too much to handle.
“I’ve seen a lot of guys not be able to adjust to it,” Malec said. “It’s a difficult position to be in, and even when guys start from other teams and they come here, they never felt this type of pressure before.”
‘Two heads are better than one’
Knaus is known as one of the most intense competitors in the NASCAR garage and can be very demanding. Even Johnson and Knaus have had their flare-ups in the past.
But Malec, who may spend more time with Knaus than anyone else on the team, said he’s seen a change in the team’s leader.
“From my standpoint, Chad’s given me a lot more responsibility and trusts me more from when we first started,” he said. “He delegates a lot more of his work to the other guys and allows that now, where before he would try to take too much on.
“He would put all the pressure on his plate, and that wasn’t always good, especially in these long seasons. I think it makes our team so much stronger. We work as more of a committee now on some of the decisions.
“Two heads are better than one usually.”
‘A family-like organization’
With the success the No. 48 has enjoyed, Malec has been targeted by teams looking for a crew chief of their own.
So far, Malec said, there is nothing any other team can offer that is better than what he already enjoys at HMS.
“This job does everything that I want to do as far as a team standpoint, success standpoint, and this is like a family here at Hendrick,” he said. “I don’t see myself going anywhere else. I’m completely content doing what I’m doing and I’m still driven 100 percent trying to make improvements to our team and get us to run better every week.
“There’s a lot of teams out there that don’t operate with this kind of unity like this organization does. As big as it is, it’s still a family-like organization. It’s a really good feeling when you know you have that many people supporting you.”
‘We’re very humble’
The consistent success of the No. 48 still brings jeers from rival fans in the grandstands and negative comments on social media. But Malec insists the No. 48 team does not gloat.
“We try to be friends with all the other teams, and I know there’s guys out there that dislike us because we win so much or we’re successful, but it’s not from us,” he said. “It’s from us performing on the race track.
“We have a good group of guys, we’re very humble, we do our job and we have success. We have one of the best drivers in the business, obviously, and we work for one of the best organizations.
“There’s nothing special out there. The team chemistry and what we have is special.
“And that’s all we need.”