INSIGHT: Ron Malec and Mark Martin on what took Jimmie Johnson to the next level

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INSIGHT: Ron Malec and Mark Martin on what took Jimmie Johnson to the next level

Insights & Analysis

INSIGHT: Ron Malec and Mark Martin on what took Jimmie Johnson to the next level

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This is the second in a series reflecting on Jimmie Johnson’s NASCAR success from those who competed against him or with him at Hendrick Motorsports.

Plenty has been said about the greatness of Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team, and all the variables came together perfectly to create a dynasty.

Even for those closest to Johnson, it was amazing to watch. It was also eye-opening to learn just how much Johnson put into being one of the best to ever compete in the NASCAR Cup Series.

Ron Malec was one of those. Malec was one of the Hendrick Motorsports team members who worked the longest with Johnson in the Cup Series, the roots of their relationship starting back when Johnson was just starting out in asphalt racing. On the No. 48 team, Malec was Johnson’s trusted car chief.

There were many wins and championships celebrated for the two. There were also many races where Malec found himself wondering, like many others, how Johnson was capable of doing what he did on the racetrack, especially on the days when the driver had to be better than the car.

“There were a lot of days I would think the same thing, like it’s amazing what this guy can do with a stock car,” Malec says. “We had three other talented drivers and somehow, he would still finish on top, even if we were struggling for performance at that time. He had that ‘never say die, never give up’ attitude that probably made him excel or prove people wrong in most cases.”

Malec and Johnson in 2016. Nigel Kinrade/Motorsport Images

When it hits Malec the most that he had a front-row seat and was part of Johnson’s accomplishments is when those who know him best bring it up. Malec knows as well as anyone how hard it is to keep the intensity level as high as Johnson did all those years or to win five consecutive Cup Series championships.

“You had to be selfless or humbled to say, ‘Well, it’s another year, and we’re basically at ground zero and starting over,’” Malec says. “You have to be grounded like that in order to put the success from winning a championship (behind you) and go forward saying we’re back at loser spot, last spot, and we need to work our way back to the front.”

As much as Malec credits Chad Knaus for motivating the team and keeping them humble, he says Johnson also cared about his team members — perhaps to the point of being a detriment in wanting to make sure everyone was happy instead of worrying about himself.

“He knew when we didn’t perform well, he had to do something for us to make us all come together as a team,” Malec says. “He never became that conceited person who thought he’d done enough or was good enough and should stop.”

Mark Martin saw that side of Johnson during his three years with the organization that began in 2009. Martin always thought he had an eye for talent but admits that Johnson was not on his radar as he came through ASA and into the NASCAR Xfinity Series.

“Because I wasn’t super focused on him, I didn’t see what Jeff Gordon saw,” Martin says. “When he started driving the 48 (car), and the success came immediate and overwhelming, my first thought was, ‘That’s Chad Knaus.’ Because I didn’t have any other explanation, and I wasn’t looking at it close enough. So, I kind of played that off for years that it was Chad Knaus.

“Then I became his teammate and I found out why he was one of the greatest of all (time). He showed some incredible talent and driving skills, but there are a lot of really talented race car drivers. What set Jimmie apart from the other greats was his worth ethic.”

As a Hendrick teammate, Mark Martin (pictured here in 2010) gained a greater appreciation for the breadth of Johnson’s talent. Motorsport Images

Martin quickly learned and saw the level of commitment Johnson had to his craft. At the time, Johnson was on his way to a fourth consecutive championship.

“I always felt like my level of commitment was above most and I felt like that was my edge and at 50 years old, I wasn’t willing to step up to the commitment level that Jimmie was giving,” says Martin. “For me that’s astounding because, in my whole career, I never met a challenge that I wouldn’t step up to. I could have done it and would have done it at 30 but let me tell you something — his deal, and his success was commitment. One hundred percent commitment, and that’s outside the driver’s seat. A lot of people can wheel them race cars, but the thing that set him apart from the other greats was how hard he worked at it and how much he put into it outside the driver’s seat.”

The most talked-about area where Johnson was ahead of the competition away from the track was his fitness. Johnson changed the game for drivers when it came to taking better care of themselves and having that translate to being mentally and physically tougher behind the wheel.

But Johnson didn’t shy away from other work. When NASCAR still allowed testing, Johnson and the No. 48 team always took advantage of the track time. Johnson ate up data and any additional information he could consume about his car and the racetracks.

“He definitely didn’t settle and say, ‘I have a bad racetrack,’ or, ‘I don’t think I’ll ever get this one,’” Malec says. “I think that drove him harder to excel at those places where he wasn’t quite as good, and that never-settle attitude definitely carried over to his personality.”

Martin simply says that if there was a jump ball, Johnson was usually able to jump higher than everyone else. Johnson worked hard and put all the pieces together to be great, and Martin isn’t interested in the debates about championship formats and eras or deciding who are the greatest drivers in the history of the sport.

“I can’t understand why people can’t accept the fact that (Jimmie) was better than the rest of us,” Martin says. “He just was. He got better results. So, instead of making excuses, I just face the facts. He beat us. He beat us a lot more than we beat him. That’s the fact.”

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