One of the traditions of NASCAR Champion’s Week in Las Vegas is that the recently minted titlist is brought to the newspaper office for an interview and a Capriotti’s sandwich.
Last year, it was Brad Keselowski, and if memory serves, he had only a couple of beers by then as it was only 11:30 a.m. The year before that, it was Tony Stewart, and Smoke was on his best behavior.
The year before that and the year before that and the year before that and the year before that and the year before that, it was Jimmie Johnson.
(The first three times Johnson won the Cup, Champion’s Week was in New York, N.Y., so there probably was no Capriotti’s. The closest one is in Delaware.)
This year, it is Jimmie Johnson again. Bobbies for everybody. Heavy on the cranberry.
It’s six Sprint Cup titles for the California driver now, and that’s only one fewer than Dale Earnhardt and “The King” Richard Petty.
Johnson is 38, a mere pup in NASCAR years. So people down in North Carolina and some of the other Southern states probably aren’t going to like it when Johnson makes the record his.
People down there still consider him an outsider. They do not consider him the Last American Hero, which is what the writer Tom Wolfe called Junior Johnson.
People down there liked it when Tom Wolfe called Junior Johnson that. They probably were not aware the author is fond of white suits, pocket squares, white homburg hats and two-tone shoes.
The first words that come to mind when you greet Jimmie Johnson away from the track are “neat” and “pressed.” His beard is neat; his shirt, jacket and jeans are pressed. This is the way he drives, too.
He wasn’t always this neat and pressed behind the wheel.
When he started his racing career, in the deserts around here and the ones down in Mexico, Jimmie Johnson sort of drove the way golfer John Daly dresses: pinks and oranges and plaids all thrown together.
He was an accident waiting to happen. Often it did happen.
I remember having seen this video of Johnson riding shotgun in a Corvette at Indianapolis Motor Speedway as Rick Mears, a four-time Indy 500 winner, drove them around the oval.
The fence posts were clicking past at a high rate of speed, but Mears was driving that Corvette with like one finger. He looked at Johnson when they were talking. Not once did Jimmie tell him to watch where he was going.
I suppose when one gets into a car with Rick Mears at the Brickyard, one kinda figures he knows his way around the place, even with only one finger on the wheel.
So those fence posts kept clicking by, and then these two cool cucumbers started chatting about their off-road racing pasts.
Jimmie said those in NASCAR who consider him a points chaser — that he wins championships by driving coolly and calmly and collectedly — should have been riding with him out at Primm in 1995 when he crashed out by taking out a mile marker.
Mile marker 1. The very first mile marker.
He mentioned that again in the R-J conference room, before they brought in the Capriotti’s.
He also mentioned falling asleep at the wheel in the Baja 1000, which is rarely a good idea.
“The stadium series had folded, and Chevy put me in a Class 8 truck, and then I won Parker, and then I crashed a couple of times … and then I crashed at Barstow real bad, and then in the 1000 — I didn’t do anything wrong, really, except falling asleep in the 1000.”
After the laughter subsided, Johnson talked about having an epiphany on the side of the road after the crash at Baja. An epiphany is one way to pass the time until the rescue vehicle arrives, or the banditos arrive, to steal your hubcaps.
“I started thinking about all those trucks I had torn up … when we get to Primm, I literally crashed at the one-mile marker — the one-mile marker! I was young. It was an amazing truck, and I had no long-race mentality. Zero,” the now neat-and-pressed one said.
And then he fell asleep in Mexico, and then he sort of remembers the sound of grinding sheet metal.
“As I was sitting there waiting for our chase vehicle, I was just running through the season, and how many trucks I crashed. How many near misses. I mean, I should have been hurt multiple times.
“That really sat with me. When the next racing season came around, I remembered sitting out there in the desert. I remembered walking myself through the year, all the mistakes I made. And I have not been upside down since.”
Nor has he fallen asleep since.
Some of the auto racing writers who interview him from week to week cannot say the same thing.
No, if Tom Wolfe ever gets around to writing about Jimmie Johnson, the book probably won’t be called “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby” because that is what Wolfe called his famous essay about California’s car culture. And also because there’s not much tangerine flake to the way Jimmie Johnson comports himself.
But you don’t have to worry about him urinating in the corner of the hospitality tent before the Victory Lap down the Strip, either.
Last year when Brad Keselowski brought out the yellow during Champion’s Week, Clint Bowyer took a picture and posted it on Twitter.
Keselowski was a breath of fresh air, and maybe NASCAR needed that. But with Jimmie Johnson, you get class and grace and a trimmed beard and clothing with creases, and you never have to ask anybody to take down a picture on Twitter.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski