Since making his NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series debut at Lowe¿s Motor Speedway in 2001, Jimmie Johnson has taken to the 1.5-mile superspeedway like the proverbial duck to water.

Heading into the UAW-GM Quality 500 on Saturday night, Oct. 16, Johnson and the No. 48 Lowe¿s team have five top-10 finishes, including two victories, at their home track.

Now entrenched in the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup, a strong run at Lowe¿s Motor Speedway¿where Johnson dominated the Coca-Cola 600 in May¿could help the El Cajon, Calif., native take his seat at the head table during the year-end awards banquet.

But why does Johnson make winning at Lowe¿s Motor Speedway look so easy? It¿s the team Hendrick Motorsports has assembled and entrusted to crew chief Chad Knaus.

It¿s a crew that was starting to take shape before Knaus was selected to lead the team. Johnson made only three starts in 2001 and Knaus joined the program after the season.

It turned out to be the perfect match, as Knaus¿ intense focus was perfect for the energetic bunch already taking shape. Knaus added key people as well, and, almost before anyone realized it, a juggernaut was born.

¿We almost built the team a little in reverse because we decided we weren¿t going to hire the crew chief until the end of that year,¿ explained Ken Howes, Hendrick Motorsports¿ director of competition. ¿Chad then came on board and brought some people with him, so it really was a combination of things.¿

Some of the employees were hired by team manager Brian Whitesell, who oversees both the No. 48 and 24 teams, or by Robbie Loomis, Jeff Gordon¿s crew chief. Still, it¿s Knaus who¿s been directing the team on a daily basis since late 2001.

Knaus, who¿d been a part of championship efforts while a member of Gordon¿s team before leaving Hendrick Motorsports to learn the ropes as a crew chief, was no stranger to winning. Still, he had to show he could translate that into victories while calling the shots.

He¿s done that repeatedly, but says it wouldn¿t have happened without the crew¿s sterling performance.

¿We really, really, really worked on personalities,¿ Knaus said. ¿Not everybody¿s the same, but we¿ve got people that really communicate well, they have a good time together and they¿re relatively in the same age bracket.

¿We based our hiring on personality and desire to learn, because we can teach anybody anything, you¿ve just got to have the right attitude,¿ Knaus continued. ¿These guys aren¿t afraid of work; they¿re not afraid to get dirty; they¿re not prima donnas or any of that stuff. They get in there, they work and that¿s the kind of people we wanted.¿

In no particular order, here¿s a look at the No. 48 Lowe¿s team, a team that¿s quickly turned Johnson into a championship contender:

Cambridge, Md., native Mike Knauer loved the sport long before he joined the No. 48 as the team¿s back-up truck driver, keeping the transporter ready for the next event and helping with testing. He got his start with a Busch Series team based out of Smyrna, Del.

¿I really didn¿t have a racing background, so I had to pick up some skills somewhere and the only way to do that was to volunteer,¿ Knauer said. ¿I did that three nights a week after my regular job.¿

The team Knauer helped eventually moved south, and Knauer soon followed, working for veteran Dave Marcis to start his Cup career.

Engine tuner Danny Emerick was born in Bryn Mawr, Pa., and was always fascinated with engines. He began taking apart go-kart engines with his father at an early age. His family moved to North Carolina during his childhood and he began working in Keith Dorton¿s engine shop in Concord, N.C., after high school.

¿I worked there for a year and loved it. I came to Hendrick in 1996 and I¿ve been here ever since,¿ Emerick said.

Todd Bosserman, a native of Waynesboro, Va., moved to the Charlotte area after graduating from college. The shock specialist joined Gordon¿s team in 1999 and moved to the No. 48 when it began running the entire schedule.

A native of San Bernardino, Calif., Ryan McCray¿s father, Rick, made 24 NEXTEL Cup starts and was a regular for several years in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. After working on his father¿s trucks, McCray eventually began working on Jack Sprague¿s pit crew with Hendrick Motorsports¿ Busch Series team and now he¿s Johnson¿s front tire carrier.

Dave Muckenthaller prepares gears and transmissions during the week and works underneath the car at the track in addition to holding the pit sign. The Tawas, Mich., native grew up racing and got involved in NASCAR after his brother moved south to get into the sport.

Rear tire carrier and mechanic Ron Malec grew up outside Milwaukee and began racing go-karts at a young age. He eventually advanced to the legendary Wisconsin short tracks and competed against such stars as Matt Kenseth.

Cory Quick, the team¿s front tire changer, grew up in Aux, Mo., where he started racing go-karts at age 9 and was racing cars by 16. He eventually moved to Georgia to work for Hardy Motorsports in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, then moved to North Carolina to work for Petty Enterprises before joining Hendrick Motorsports.

Mechanic David Bryant grew up in Farmville, Va., not far from South Boston Speedway. He raced late models and go-karts, but when that became too expensive, he started working on cars for other drivers. He worked for Washington-Erving Motorsports in the Busch Series before joining Hendrick Motorsports.

Engineer Bobby Turner grew up within five miles of Lowe¿s Motor Speedway and first helped a friend work on his race car at Concord Motorsports Park. His high school auto mechanics teacher got him a job sweeping floors at HMS and he worked there part-time until graduating from UNC Charlotte, when he joined the team full-time.

Rear-tire changer Shane Parsnow of Oswego, N.Y., was with Alan Kulwicki¿s team when it won the 1992 championship. He worked with a local engine builder part-time and was hooked when he attended his first Cup race at Pocono. He moved to North Carolina and got his start sweeping floors and cleaning parts for Kulwicki.

Concord, N.C., native Jason Gray is the team¿s back-up truck driver and catches the tires as they come back to the wall during pit stops. He worked for free for three months at HMS due to his love of the sport before being hired full-time.

Jim Pollard is the team¿s primary truck driver and gas man. The Greensboro, N.C., native got his start helping Petty Enterprises on some of its long-distance trips, where he got to know Loomis, and that led him to Hendrick.

Chris Osborne spends his races high above the track, serving as Johnson¿s spotter. The High Point, N.C., native also works in the shop and helps drive the No. 24 transporter on longer trips.

Tire specialist Kenny Briggs grew up in Redding, Calif., racing go-karts and sprint cars. He moved to North Carolina after graduation, joining HMS in 2001 with Gordon¿s team.

Jack man Chris Anderson, a native of Brooksville, Fla., worked for the No. 24 team before joining Johnson¿s operation. While at Appalachian State, he attended races at North Wilkesboro Speedway and met members of Junior Johnson¿s crew. He never worked for Johnson¿s team, but Anderson was hooked and soon was jacking race cars for a living.

Tickets for the UAW-GM Quality 500 on Saturday night, Oct. 16, start at just $29 and can be obtained by calling 1-800-455-FANS.