When Jimmie Johnson speeds past a checkered flag, Robbie Loomis's emotions are never as simple as black and white.
Loomis, the crew chief for Johnson's teammate and close friend Jeff Gordon, will congratulate his buddies on Johnson's crew while nursing his own disappointment, unsure whether to rejoice or mope.
"For me, it's like my brother just got married, and I'm happy for him, but it's like I'm going through a divorce at the same time," Loomis explained.
There have been more than enough celebrations to go around this year for Loomis and his co-workers at Hendrick Motorsports, a trend that might well continue at Saturday's Pepsi 400. Gordon will sit on the pole, and despite Johnson's sub-par qualifying effort Thursday night, he boasts the best average finish of any active driver at Daytona.
Of course, the two Californians -- who have commandeered NASCAR's top circuit for much of the season -- flirt with the lead virtually every week, on every type of track.
Johnson tops the Nextel Cup standings, while Gordon -- his mentor and a part-owner of his car -- is fourth. Johnson has the most top 10 finishes of any driver (12 in 16 races), while Gordon is tied for second with 11. Even with a brief run of poor finishes by Gordon, the duo has claimed three of the past five races and four of the past six poles, leading more than half of the 1,310 laps run in that span.
"It makes it look like we're cheating," admitted Brian Whitesell, the team manager for both drivers. "Right now, we've got about all our areas clicking, and when you're doing that it looks like you've found something you shouldn't have found."
What the teammates have discovered is that rivalries can be dusted off for four hours a week, and then packed away like another air wrench or lug nut.
Johnson's and Gordon's uniquely entwined teams, which operate under one roof in suburban Charlotte, are more jumbled than the biggest Daytona pileup. Johnson crew chief Chad Knaus walks past Loomis's adjoining office on his way to the shop. Loomis passes Knaus's office on his way to the restroom. The two talk 10 or 15 times a day, discussing "absolutely everything, I'm serious, absolutely everything" about their cars, Knaus said.
Gordon and Johnson -- both trim and dark-haired, both nearly always shielded by sunglasses -- are as close as their crew chiefs. They've gone scuba diving together, have traveled to a Formula One race in Spain, spent New Year's Eve together. Last month, the two drivers, along with Knaus, Whitesell and several other team employees, snuck away during a race weekend in Michigan to attend Formula One qualifying in Indianapolis.
The relationship is "better than we'd ever perhaps dreamed going in," said Hendrick Competition Director Ken Howes, who was there in 2002 when Johnson's rookie team sprouted out of Gordon's 2001 championship squad.
After practice rounds, the drivers exchange tips; during the week, they meet for meals.
"I don't think anyone can truly understand how much they talk," said Knaus, himself a former Gordon crew member.
Such connections percolate throughout the pair's 70-person staff. During the week, most of their employees work on both drivers' cars while wearing generic Hendrick Motorsports shirts, affixed with the logos of Lowe's (Johnson's primary sponsor) and DuPont (Gordon's).
The crew members share airplanes, hotels and dinners. They golf together, play video games together, lounge by the pool together. Crew members earn identical incentives and bonuses if either car finishes in victory lane. They swap every hint or idea, every latest part, accepting that "for the better of the team, I won't have this widget this week," Knaus said.
Johnson takes the track knowing "that Jeff Gordon's driving the same car, the same setup, the same stuff," a feeling by no means universal among NASCAR teammates. Disaffected Roush Racing driver Greg Biffle groused this spring that some of his teammates were benefiting from superior equipment, a complaint that would be laughable in the Hendrick garage, employees said. Knaus, to prove the point, produced computer printouts detailing the specifications of every Hendrick car.
"Even if you wanted to hide something from the other team, it's right there in front of them," Whitesell said.
So when Gordon was recently plagued by several bad finishes -- being nudged into the wall in Dover, Del., and blowing his engine in Michigan -- it tempered Johnson's enthusiasm at moving into the series points lead, even as some commentators suggested he had eclipsed his teacher.
"You hate to see your teammates have bad luck happen to them," Johnson said. "When you've been racing a while you understand that it comes in cycles, it's nothing you can predict. He just had some freak things happen."
Gordon concurred, adding that he was still able to enjoy Johnson's accomplishments, proud of his protege and excited that a nearly identical car was running so smoothly.
Since Johnson's team was formed, neither driver has finished out of the top five in the year-end standings, but neither has won a Cup championship. With NASCAR's new 10-race shootout positioning both as legitimate contenders this year, the teams' close-knit relationship will face a new test. Several Hendrick employees predicted that an imaginary line might emerge in the garage, with information not flowing quite as freely if a championship is up for grabs.
"It will be interesting," Gordon acknowledged with a smile. "I'd love to see it come down to the two of us, but it will be interesting to see how that works."