It seems in the past several years, keeping a core group of guys together on a team in NASCAR is something which has been missing – with changes being consistently made in search of stronger chemistry or for lifestyle reasons.
Then there’s the No. 48 team, which has seen Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus paired together as driver-crew chief for the past 15 years. Alongside the pair has been Ron Malec, holding down the role as car chief the entire time.
“I would have to say it’s cause Chad and myself have like personalities, grew up in the same area and have a great work ethic,” Malec told POPULAR SPEED. “Jimmie is the same way, and he’s all about the team. I think that’s different than a lot of drivers in that he focuses on making sure the team is communicating well, and involved in everything. There’s a good balance there, for sure, and it has seemed to work really well over the years.
“It’s pretty amazing that the group of guys can stay together through all the success and everything else. It’s pretty amazing when you think about it, and it makes it that much more enjoyable.”
This past season, their chemistry as a group worked together perfectly as they made history in winning their seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship, tying with Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty for the most in series history.
“Obviously it’s an amazing feat to be just part of a great organization,” Malec said. “The success we’ve had and being hands on as part of the championship is pretty amazing. It’s a feeling that I can’t explain. Glad to be apart of it, and it’s an amazing feat when you think about the history in our sport and what we’ve been able to do in a short amount of time.”
The No. 48 team came out of the box quick this season, winning two races in the first five events of the season to qualify themselves for the Chase. However, with struggles through the summer, a lot of people wrote the 48 team off of winning the championship this season. Though as they have done many times before, they were able to turn up the heat during the Chase.
While they started the Chase off with a 12th at Chicagoland Speedway, they backed it up with a solid eighth and seventh in the next two races to make it to round two. They then picked up the win at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the Round of 12 opener, automatically advancing them to the third round.
“Being able to score the win at Charlotte was really the turning point in our season, and it really set the tone for the rest of our Chase,” Malec said.
They then won the opening race of the Round of 8 at Martinsville Speedway, allowing Johnson to move forward to the final round at Homestead-Miami Speedway automatically. Malec notes the timing of their victories in the Chase was a key to the success they had.
“It’s really about victories, and a key was being able to win those victories at the beginning of those rounds, which really allowed us to get our cars prepared really good,” he said. “Winning Martinsville was big and allowed us to focus on Homestead. We didn’t have to focus on every single event – not like we didn’t try in those races, but we could put more focus on the races that were more important.”
After starting at the back, Johnson worked his way to the front of the field and was able to capitalize on a late-race restart to take the lead three to go, leading the rest of the way en route to winning the race and the championship.
While it marks a remarkable accomplishment on its own, it’s one that has a lot of personal meaning for Johnson and Malec together.
The pair met before Johnson even headed to NASCAR on Johnson’s off-road racing days on the SCORE circuit. Their friendship grew through sharing an apartment in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, with Malec beginning to work on Johnson’s American Speed Association (ASA) cars in 1998.
Looking back on those days, Malec says it’s amazing to think of everything they’ve accomplished.
“I don’t think we could even think about that back then,” he said. “To just get an opportunity to work in motorsports at that point was a big deal. We’ve had a lot of success in the sport, and I think we’ve earned it. We’ve shown people and earned a lot of respect from people who probably didn’t know who Jimmie Johnson was in 1998, and it’s just amazing to be apart of.”
Moving forward, it doesn’t appear their slowing down as a focus is already being put forth in the Hendrick Motorsports shop towards going for a record eighth championship in 2017.
“I don’t think it’s out of the question by any means,” he said. “We have a great team, a great driver who is maturing more every day, and our cars getting stronger. Kind of excited about going for eight, and doing the best that we can next year. Like with any season, we’ll see what happens. With the Chase format, anything can happen in those races. So going to approach like any other year – try to win a race during the season to make the Chase and see what happens.”
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