NEW GLARUS -

Jesse Saunders was on track to be a race car driver.

But after years of racing at places like Madison International, Jefferson and Rockford Speedways, he felt it was time to head in a different direction.

So Saunders, a native of New Glarus, began working his way up the ladder on the crews of racing teams.

Eventually, it led to a job at Hendrick Motorsports and Johnson's #48 Sprint Cup crew as an "underneath mechanic."

Saunders says he has responsibility for "everything underneath Johnson's car from the firewall back."

His persistence and hard work paid off when Johnson clinched his record-tying seventh NASCAR driving championship Sunday in Homestead, Florida.

Saunders says the long Sprint Cup season is a grind from February in Daytona to November in Homestead, but it was worth it when they wrapped up the championship.

But Saunders hasn't forgotten his roots and says his years of short track racing in the upper Midwest prepared him well for the top level of stock car racing.

"You learn hard work, you learn perseverence, you learn when the deck is stacked against you to just keep digging," Saunders said. "that in a nutshell was what this year was- when you get to this level, it still requires that hard work and there's times you just want to give up but when you come from the local scene you learn to just keep digging and we  just kept digging."

As soon as they wrapped up the title Sunday night, Saunders started receiving texts and congratulations from a lot of people who helped him in his short track days and have followed him in his trip to the top of the NASCAR circuit.

"The fact that so many people, you know, saw it - they were all part of it. they knew me from the beginning- they know I'm still the same guy - just a very small part of this team but they were all a part of getting me to where I am," Saunders added.

"It's cool so I hope everybody can take a little enjoyment  out of it. To be a small town guy and to get to live this dream- it's just been unreal and I'm just excited that it happened and people got to see the path more or less along the way. "