Jimmie Johnson stars on the Vegas Strip
They should have had my seat, inside the No. 48 car as smoke from burning tires and a burning engine poured in as we spun wildly in circles on the Vegas Strip. Actually, they could have had my seat, because one more doughnut spinning perilously close to the center median and I was about to see if there was an escape hatch on the car.
It was all great fun for the thousands of tourists and NASCAR faithful gathered to watch the best stock car driver in the world strut his stuff. Johnson seemed to be having a good time, too, though the smoke was so thick it was hard to tell.
Me? All I could think about how we almost ended up planted in the median planter.
“Guess we came a little close on that one,” Johnson said, inspecting the trail of burned rubber he left on what had been a perfectly good stretch of asphalt.
The original idea seemed innocent enough. Ride with Johnson as he led a parade of 12 drivers on a victory lap past a faux New York skyline and the fantasy Roman empire of Caesars Palace, then back up the Strip before parking our rides in front of the giant, fake gold Lion at the entrance to the MGM Grand.
Yes, I had to sign a waiver releasing Johnson and NASCAR for any liability if something happened. But the guy is such a corporate clone, or so they told me, that he wasn’t going to do anything that would have me reaching for the helmet he insisted I didn’t need.
This being Vegas, the Wayner (Newton) was on hand to see us off, along with the obligatory pair of feathered showgirls. About the only thing missing were some Cirque du Soleil contortionists on top of the cars.
NASCAR crashed Sin City this week, and the only question the drivers had was what took so long? After 28 years in New York City, the racing league is holding its season-ending awards ceremony in a city where the sight of race cars thundering down the main drag is just another over-the-top spectacle.
“We go to New York to celebrate,” Vegas native
There would be a lot of partying Thursday night, but first there was a parade. Johnson was out front, waving and giving the thumbs up to fans who lined the Strip waving signs and screaming out his name.
Boring? Hardly. Just coolly efficient at what he does, as evidenced by the way he has dominated his fellow drivers the past four years.
Let Dale Earnhardt. Jr. sell all the merchandise. Johnson will take this year’s seven wins and the unprecedented four straight Sprint Cup Series championships.
“When I came out here I thought if I could just win one race I would have it made,” Johnson said. “Now look at me. I’ve won 47 of them.”
It’s been a remarkable run, made even more remarkable by the fact Johnson has done it at a time when NASCAR standardized the cars to make everyone more competitive and juggled the points system to make it even harder to dominate. And for the last few weeks, Johnson has been celebrated in all places NASCAR and beyond.
Still, while he may get the respect, he doesn’t get the adulation. There’s something about Johnson that fans just can’t get their hands around, something that keeps them from embracing him for the great driver that he is.
“I think people love to see some flash, love to see everyone talk some smack, especially in sports,” Johnson said. “But it’s just not my personality to do that stuff. The masses have not been happy with my approach, but I think over time people will understand. But if people accuse me of being a professional, I’ll take that.”
I thought Johnson was quite professional until we came to the intersection where pirates battle on one corner and high rollers on the other. That”s where he floored it, taking us on a dizzying 42-second ride spinning sideways (the video is on YouTube) that felt as if it lasted three hours.
Just as suddenly, we were done. Smoke and oil poured out of the blown engine, and Johnson removed the steering wheel and suggested that maybe it was time to get out.
Turns out Johnson broke the car’s axle, too. But the fans had their show, and Johnson made them squeal even more by standing on the car and flexing for them.
The other 11 drivers sat idling, meanwhile, getting a good laugh and wondering why Johnson’s cars never break when it really matters.
The last half of the parade would be on the back of the pace car, his legs dangling over the spoiler. Johnson motioned for me to join him, and I climbed on, not too sure about the whole thing.
The car lurched off, and we nearly slid off.
“I wonder if he knows we’re on the back,” Johnson said.
Yeah, Jimmie, I was kind of thinking the same thing.
But, hey, thanks for the show.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org