Growing up in the San Diego area, Jimmie Johnson made more than his share of trips to the Las Vegas Valley, racing dirt bikes in Henderson, venturing to a go-kart track and changing tires in the pit area for the Mint 400 off-road race.
“Also competed in a few of The Mint 400s myself,” he said. “Vegas has been great to me in racing. Really kind of growing up on the West Coast, (it was) a racing hub, so when this track was built here (in 1996), I hoped to race on it and certainly had my success on this track and enjoy it here.”
Johnson, 38, did more than race at the 1½-mile long Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He won the Sprint Cup race four times, including three in a row from 2005 to 2007. He also won in 2010.
“I love this track and this area,” he said. “For whatever reason, it’s a very intense track, a track that bravery usually pays off. I think that fits my driving style and works good for me here.”
Johnson is a 4-1 favorite to win today’s Kobalt 400, which begins at noon. His No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet will start in the fifth position.
Joey Logano, in the No. 22 Team Penske Ford, sits on the pole next to teammate Brad Keselowski in the No. 2 car.
Kyle Busch, in the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, starts in the 20th spot. His brother and fellow Las Vegan, Kurt, begins the race from the 23rd spot in the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet.
“It’s always an interesting race because it’s so early in the season and usually one of our first big tracks that we compete on,” Johnson said. “You find out how you stack up and where you are at.”
Maybe that explains why Johnson has dominated the Cup series, transferring success from Las Vegas to the rest of the season.
He has six Cup championships, including last season’s. Johnson won five in a row from 2006 to 2010.
The lack of drama is the main reason NASCAR wanted to instill drama into its playoff format, changing the Chase for the Cup to an elimination system in which winning takes on added importance. The leader in points over the season’s final 10 races had determined the champion.
Winning races to get into the Chase also is accentuated, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Daytona and Kevin Harvick in Phoenix already have taken major steps to making the playoffs.
Johnson is off to a strong start, coming to Las Vegas off fifth- and sixth-place finishes the past two weeks.
The top 15 drivers in victories make the Chase, with the 16th spot going to the leader in points without a win. But Johnson questioned whether winning was especially important to making the postseason, echoing a statement made by Kyle Busch.
“Essentially you need to be 16th in points, which is more generous than what we’ve seen in previous years,” Johnson said. “I do agree with Kyle’s mindset. I think that winning late in the season is very important.
“I think our series still needs to have that element of consistency and be rewarded for it.”
Johnson is friends with Nationwide Series driver and Las Vegan Brendan Gaughan, and would stay at Gaughan’s home when he came here to race at a go-kart track.
Now that he’s older, Johnson still comes to Las Vegas primarily for racing. He prefers to take the city in small doses when it comes to what this area is more known for.
“I guess I might spend too much time in the casinos and doing things I shouldn’t, where a night or two is about all I need,” Johnson said. “Vegas is fun, but it’s really just in my mind a racing town. It’s why I’ve been here so many times.”
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.