Cup field faces headwinds


Jimmie Johnson has overcome NASCAR penalties, the absence of his crew chief and a reconfigured track to win the last three Sprint Cup Series races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Today, the two-time reigning series champion is likely to be challenged by Mother Nature when the UAW-Dodge 400 begins at 1:30 p.m. Johnson will try to become the first driver in 10 years to win four consecutive Cup races on the same track.

The National Weather Service on Saturday issued a wind advisory forecasting sustained northerly winds of 35 mph through tonight, with gusts up to 55 mph.

Temperatures also are forecast to drop into the low 60s after a sun-baked Friday and overcast Saturday, both of which were in the 70s.

If the forecast proves accurate, cars will drive into a headwind exiting the fourth turn and into the first. Then a tailwind will help push them through the second turn and into the third.

Matt Kenseth, the Las Vegas winner in 2002 and '03, was the fastest in Friday's morning practice, but he knows it will be a different track today.

"The weather conditions are supposed to be a lot different," said Kenseth, the driver of the No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford. "It's supposed to be real cold and real windy, so that adds a little more of the unknown."

The conditions will be similar to when teams tested a month ago at the speedway.

The cooler weather could be a blessing for Johnson, who qualified 35th Friday. It's unlikely a weather alert will distract him; nothing has taken the wind out of his sails here the past three years.

Although Chad Knaus was one of three crew chiefs punished by NASCAR for rules violations in the 2005 Las Vegas race, Johnson's victory was upheld to begin his streak.

In 2006 Johnson won without Knaus, who was on NASCAR suspension for rules violations in the Daytona 500.

And a year ago, Johnson was undaunted in the first race after the 11/2-mile tri-oval was repaved, corners were narrowed and banking was nearly doubled to 20 degrees.

"They reconfigured it. We were still able to win," said Johnson, whose 10 victories last year started at Las Vegas. "I had to learn with everyone else last year about what the track was going to do.

"It's so early in the season, and I feel like the team's trying to get into a rhythm, I'm trying to get into a rhythm. This hasn't (traditionally) been a race I've gone into saying, 'All right, we're in our stride right now and we're going to win in Las Vegas.' It's just worked out that way."

Johnson will start the 11th annual Cup race in his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet trying to match the mark teammate Jeff Gordon set by winning at Darlington, S.C., from 1995 to 1998.

"It would be great to get that fourth win, but we won't approach this weekend any differently than we would at a track where we've never won," said Johnson, who finished second to Carl Edwards in Monday's rain-delayed Cup race at Fontana, Calif.

"There's no need to put more pressure on myself than I already would. If I can keep it in my mind more like it's a normal race ... I found this (out) with the championship last year. If I just keep it simple, I stay in the right mind-set and focus on the right things.

"Anyone who's ever been to Vegas will tell you you've got to have some luck on your side, too."

If there's any extra luck floating around the speedway today, Johnson might have to search through blowing trash to find it. But although he has enjoyed the benefits of Las Vegas, he doesn't look forward to racing at LVMS.

"When I think about tracks that I really look forward to going to, the Vegas track is not one of those," he said. "There's usually new things with cars and setups, new crew members. There's really a lot of doubt surrounding Vegas. It's so early in the season.

"It's a great facility. Mentally, I guess I'm focused in other areas."

Today's other 42 starters surely will be looking for him.

Contact reporter Jeff Wolf at jwolf@reviewjournal.com or (702) 383-0247.

 

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