If there is a backbone to Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus winning 77 races and six Cup Series championships, it’s the constant desire to be mechanically better.
It is why even in the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s win at Auto Club Speedway, Knaus wasn’t content with Johnson winning for a second time in five races this season -- or his status as the only driver with multiple victories.
"I don't feel that we're running as strong as what we need," Knaus said. "I think we're okay, for sure, obviously. But I think from my standpoint, we should be doing a little bit better."
Early season success is a common occurrence for Johnson -- who has never gone past Memorial Day weekend without notching a victory -- but the main focus is having an extended stay in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. It's an issue that's hindered the 48 team since NASCAR went to the knockout playoff format in 2014.
Despite Johnson winning four of the first 13 events last year, his next win didn't occur until October. By then, he had been eliminated from the Chase when an inexpensive suspension part failed in the Round 1 elimination race. The season before, Johnson unexpectedly suffered a second-round playoff elimination.
The inability to make a deep Chase run, is seen by Johnson and Knaus as a consequence of a strong start that tails off over the summer months, which then carries over into the fall.
"It's a long year," Johnson said in Victory Lane on Sunday. "We need to keep doing this all year long, especially late in the season."
Said Knaus: "That's obviously been the Achilles' heel of the 48 car going through the summer months ... where it's bad, [where] oh, my gosh, you want to slit your wrists."
With a playoff spot virtually assured, Knaus emphasized demonstrating the same current performance level for the final 10 races of the season that will decide the championship. The plan is to use the remainder of the regular season as a glorified test to fine-tune and prepare for the Chase.
"This year we're not going to worry about the summer months as much as what we need to," Knaus said. "We're going to focus forward, put our efforts into going into those first few races of the Chase. That's our main focus at this point."
So it goes for a team where wins are nice and appreciated -- Knaus encourages crew members to celebrate victories however they feel best, be it "partying at a club, or going out and getting an ice cream with the kids" -- but the primary goal is something bigger.
A seventh title for Johnson would equal the NASCAR record shared by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, and lend further credence that he may be the sport's all-time best. As for Knaus, he's pursuing Dale Inman's crew chief of eight championships. And this means perpetually trying to make gains, just as other teams continually search for ways to beat the 48.
"Look, let's be honest, our job as teams is to build the best race car we possibly can," Knaus said. "We want to build the most downforce, we want to build the most mechanical grip and we want to build the most horsepower. He who does that wins. Period."