Six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson may have grown up in El Cajon, Calif., but he did a lot of racing in the Las Vegas area long before he set foot in NASCAR, from racing dirt bikes to competing in the Mint 400. So when NASCAR travels to Las Vegas for events at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, as it did this weekend for Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 400, the trips are somewhat of a homecoming for Johnson, even if he never really lived in the area.
Johnson’s also no stranger to victory lane at LVMS. He leads active drivers with four Sprint Cup wins at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. During preparations for Sunday’s Kobalt 400, Johnson talked to media about racing in Vegas, NASCAR’s new rules package for racing at intermediate tracks, the new Chase for the Sprint Cup format and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., among other things. Here’s what he had to say:
TALK ABOUT COMING TO LAS VEGAS MOTOR SPEEDWAY SEEKING YOUR FIRST VICTORY OF THE SEASON AT A PLACE THAT HAS BEEN GOOD TO YOU:
“I love coming back here. I spent so much time here in my younger years racing from racing dirt bikes in the Henderson area. A lot of years the mini nationals were placed over there for the amateur dirt bike racers. Literally across the street is where the start/finish and the main pit area for The Mint 400 was which I changed a lot of tires and worked in a pit for many years. Also competed in a few of The Mint 400’s myself, Vegas has been great to me in racing. Really kind of growing up on the West Coast a racing hub, so when this track was built here hoped to race on it and certainly had my success on this track and enjoy it out here.
“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. You find out how you stack up and where you are at. Phoenix went well for us. We would have liked to have been a bit better but had a very good week and progressed through the practice sessions and in the race. We learned about the qualifying format and kind of what we wanted to do this weekend. Then yesterday’s test session was nice. There were point’s where we were real fast and happy. Then with the rules like they are now it is very easy to make an adjustment on your car that affects four or five other areas and takes the car right out of the race track and slows you down. We are learning and we are enjoying the process. There are a bunch of new challenges right now with the new car. I love this track and I love the area. One other thing to add to this race track and how you drive it for whatever reason it’s been a very intense track, a track that bravery usually pays off and I think that fits my driving style and works good for me here.”
DO YOU HAVE A LOT OF FRIENDS HERE? IS THIS A PLACE YOU COME IN YOUR OWN TIME OFF?
“No, I did a lot growing up just from a racing perspective. Then a night or two out here is good. 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. The banquet week is three days too long because livers hate me by the end of it. Vegas is fun, but it’s really just in my mind a racing town. It’s why I’ve been here so many times and I do have friend from the off road racing industry that are in town. I just saw Brendan Gaughan in the hallway, chatted with him. Growing up I would stay at his house and we would come out here to the go-kart track and race around. Just different memories like that, but again all racing based.”
HOW WILL YOU LOOK AT YOUR PERFORMANCE AT THE TEST AND WHAT YOU DO ON SUNDAY AND DIAGNOSIS THAT FOR THE REST OF YOUR SEASON GIVEN THAT WE GO TO SO MANY INTERMEDIATE TRACKS?
“I think how we run here will dictate our testing schedule. If we don’t have the speed or feel like directionally we are going down the right road it would be useful to test on a bigger track soon. A lot of people have been to Nashville and Nashville is great to get out and run on, but it’s not a mile and a half. It’s tough to really take specifics from that race track to other race tracks. It’s a concrete track, different shape and different size than a lot of places we run on. This weekend is important for sure. Yesterday was very helpful and useful. I’m glad that NASCAR allowed us to come out for a few hours.”
DOES HAVING MORE ADJUSTABILITY IN THE CAR PUT MORE PRESSURE ON YOU IN TERMS OF COMMUNICATION AND BEING PRECISE IN TERMS OF WHAT THE CAR IS DOING?
“Definitely, communication is always key. The one thing that we have found right now with the ride heights like they are and the options you can run for springs. You can make a change to a spring in the car and affect your ride heights and completely change the way the geometry works in the car. As you look at it initially you think ‘okay this will free the car up’ you send it onto the race track, you come back you are plowing tight. It’s like ‘wait a second what is going on?’ You have to look three or four layers deeper to understand the way everything works together and they are like ‘oh I see, it changed ride heights, which changed this, now I see why the car is tight.’ So there are more steps involved with making a decision now. I feel like communication still is key, but the thought process on the pit box is more important than it’s ever been because a simple change affects more things now.”
DESCRIBE THE DIFFERENCE IN DALE (EARNHARDT) JR.’S CONFIDENCE FROM WHERE HE WAS WHEN IT WAS REALLY BAD TO WHERE HE IS NOW WHEN HE’S JUST RIDING ON CLOUD NINE ALL THE TIME:
“I feel that and we are all guilty of it. When things aren’t rolling well you go multiple races without winning or seasons whatever it might be. I think a lot of people look within and kind of shut down and get quiet. I certainly feel like Junior is in that category and maybe more so than a lot of people. Just guessing that pressure from fans, pressure that he puts on himself, pressure of his father’s success a lot of those elements weigh on him heavy and heavier than what a lot of other drivers deal with. Getting to know him so well now being in the same shop I could see that effect on him and I have always tried to lighten things up and try to help keep him open and having fun. Steve Letarte is greatly responsible for keeping him open and having fun. When stuff is not right Steve does a nice job of ‘hey this sucked, let’s move on and do something different.’ That has worked very well for him and has kept his confidence high. The last couple of races certainly show where his confidence is and what comes with it. I can say that throughout all of last year and even into part of the season the year before when things really started turning around for him that success leads to confidence. That circle started and they have been building ever since and we have all seen it in his stats and performance. This year he is off to an awesome start.”
KYLE BUSCH SAID THAT THE PRESSURE TO WIN COMES IN AT CHICAGO AND LOUDON AND DOVER. HOW DO YOU THINK THIS WILL CHANGE THE APPROACH OF DRIVERS SUCH AS YOURSELF FOR THAT FIRST SEGMENT OF THE CHASE?
“I definitely agree. The fact that points still count for the first cut to make the Chase, essentially you need to be 16th in points, which is more generous than what we have seen in previous years. I do agree with Kyle’s mindset. I think that winning late in the season is very important. I guess you still can transfer all the way through by having a great point’s situation which I’m in favor of. I think our series still needs to have that element of consistency and be rewarded for it. But winning becomes most important from Chicago on.”
– photo courtesy of Getty Images for NASCAR