Johnson primed for the bright lights of Vegas

By the end of Sunday’s KOBALT 400 (3:00 p.m. ET on FOX) at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, don’t be surprised if a familiar face is front-and-center.

That would be Jimmie Johnson.

When NASCAR revamped the criteria to qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup during the offseason – all but guaranteeing a spot in the playoff format to race winners – analysts and fans alike assumed Johnson would be one of the drivers to punch a ticket to the postseason.

Many believe that Johnson will lock up a spot for the Chase sooner than later – and Las Vegas is the perfect track to do so. Five times, Johnson has logged his first win of a season during the first three races. The latest Johnson has gone in a season before winning was in 2003 when he won both the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race and the Coca-Cola 600 on consecutive weekends in late May at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Johnson and his team, and the rest of the series, arrive in Las Vegas early today for testing. The No. 48 KOBALT Chevrolet team in particular is looking forward to getting in the additional track time at a 1.5-mile speedway; intermediate tracks such as LVMS are peppered throughout the schedule.

“We didn’t participate in the test sessions that took place at Charlotte on the 2014 package,” Johnson said. “We knew it would hurt us a little bit at the start of the year and there’s a little bit of that there. So, as you can imagine we are really looking forward to the test.”

For Johnson there is a heightened commitment to win Sunday because the race’s sponsor, KOBALT Tools, is also the primary sponsor for the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet in Vegas.

After the first two races of 2014 in which he has posted fifth- and sixth-place finishes and 100-plus driver ratings, the six-time champion heads to Vegas where he has a series-high four victories. Three of those victories came in three consecutive seasons (2005-07), with a fourth trip to Victory Lane in 2010.

In the 2006 race, Johnson led only the last lap to beat Matt Kenseth to the finish by 0.045 seconds, the closest margin of victory in series history at Las Vegas. In last year’s race, Johnson finished sixth after starting third and leading 66 laps. Johnson and Kenseth are the only two drivers to have led laps in 10 series events at LVMS.

Without a doubt, the “Diamond in the Desert” is one of Johnson’s most dominant tracks. Over the past nine NASCAR Sprint Cup races in Vegas, the California driver sits in the top five of most loop data categories. He ranks first in eight of them: driver rating (112.3), average finish (9.0), average running position (9.6), laps led (408), fastest laps (316), green flag speed (170.622 mph), speed in traffic (169.603 mph) and fastest early in runs (172.901 mph).