LAS VEGAS — "I love coming back here," Jimmie Johnson said of Las Vegas, but it's not to gamble or take in a show.
"Vegas is fun but it's really, just in my mind, a racing town," he said. And Johnson, the reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, might as well be its honorary mayor.
As he seeks a record-tying seventh Cup title this year, Johnson already holds the record for most Cup wins at Las Vegas Motor Speedway with four.
Yet, he has had something of a drought at the 1.5-mile oval located 15 miles northeast of the Strip. His last win here was four years ago, and he'll try to return to Victory Lane on Sunday in the Kobalt 400.
"It's an interesting race because it's so early in the season and usually one of our first big tracks that we compete on," said Johnson, who starts fifth Sunday. "You find out how you stack up."
As it has been for most of the last eight years, it's a given that Johnson stacks up well against his rivals, even if the 38-year-old El Cajon native hasn't made many headlines so far this year.
He was in contention to win the Daytona 500 for the second consecutive year but couldn't get past his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., who won the season opener while Johnson settled for fifth.
Then at Phoenix a week ago, Kevin Harvick drove to a dominant win and Johnson brought home his No. 48 Chevrolet in sixth.
After practice Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Johnson said his team "made some big improvements" on his car "so I feel good about race day."
Johnson's rivals will watch closely to see how he fares Sunday because 11 of the 36 races on the Cup schedule take place at 1.5-mile tracks, and Johnson always has excelled at those speedways.
He has won six times at Charlotte Motor Speedway, for instance, and three times at Texas Motor Speedway, both 1.5-mile ovals. At Las Vegas, Johnson overall has seven top-10 finishes in 12 Cup starts.
Johnson last week had an interesting choice of words for racing at Las Vegas, where speeds can reach 200 mph and drivers fly through the turns while narrowly avoiding the outside wall.
Johnson, who grew up racing off-road vehicles, termed the layout "a very intense track" where "bravery usually pays off," and that "I think that fits my driving style and works good for me."
There have been few places that Johnson hasn't found success, in good part because he has been guided by Chad Knaus, who's known as one of the shrewdest and best-prepared crew chiefs in NASCAR.
Johnson has 66 victories, eighth on the all-time list, and few would wager against him on any given weekend.
He has earned $136 million for his Hendrick team in race winnings during his 12-year career. Forbes last summer estimated that Johnson had earned $24 million in the previous year from racing and endorsements, placing him 41st on the list of the world's highest-paid athletes.
For years Johnson's consistently winning ways, and his subdued, even-keeled personality, have rubbed a good part of NASCAR's fan base the wrong way.
Despite his remarkable six titles, Johnson gets knocked for being bland and predictable. Some also have suggested that his repeated success has contributed to the slide in NASCAR's popularity in recent years.
The topic came up again last month before the Daytona 500 and Johnson again disputed the notion. "One driver's dominance is not the reason why" NASCAR's attendance and TV ratings have sagged, he said.
In any case, Johnson enjoys the spoils of his success. In addition to his Charlotte, N.C., area home, Johnson for years has owned an apartment in New York, where he and his wife Chandra and two young daughters spend about three months of the year.
The driver runs in New York's Central Park and along the West Side Highway, rides a bike on the city's crowded streets and spends time with close friends, including musician Doug Keith.
Another friend is Earnhardt, and Johnson has enjoyed seeing his teammate revel in his Daytona 500 win last month. "This year [Earnhardt] is off to an awesome start," Johnson said.
But at Las Vegas, it well could be Earnhardt who ends up congratulating Johnson, and Earnhardt said as much after testing at the track Thursday.
Johnson has "obviously been the lead horse in the organization for a long time," Earnhardt said. "He'll get it going."
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