Ilas Vegas Test:/I Day Two

Jimmie Johnson may have spent part of his off-season tracking game on the African plains, but his 2006 regular-season safari could yield the biggest trophy – a NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series title.

The driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet finished fifth in last season’s Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup, not what he envisioned after two consecutive seasons as the series runner-up. Winter time spent with his wife, Chandra, on a photographic safari proved an invigorating getaway – and one which could prove the perfect metaphor for 2006.

“I didn’t own a nice camera until that trip,” Johnson said Tuesday at NASCAR Preseason Thunder at Las Vegas. “So you can definitely see my photos develop as the days went by. The first three or four days weren’t very good.”

NASCAR Preseason Thunder at Las Vegas is the continuation of the annual preseason tests that began several weeks ago at Daytona International Speedway, and on Tuesday, Johnson – one of five drivers who visited with media during the lunch break – discussed his safari adventure, among other things.

“I didn’t come back and feel like I solved the world’s problems,” Johnson said. “But I spent a lot of quality time with my wife and didn’t think about racing.”

The Johnsons were accompanied by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet) and his girlfriend, Ingrid Vandebosch, and part of their time involved tracking a lion pride – also, quite a bit of anticipation.

“Of course Jeff and I wanted to see the lions feed and the girls were scared to death that would happen,” Johnson said, adding that the group didn’t witness a lion feast.

But a healthy hunger exists within his team. A harmless morning spin on Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s frontstretch provided such punctuation for Johnson.

“Thankfully I didn’t hit anything,” he said. “There’s something about spinning out the first time, ‘All right, I had my first spin.’ I feel very accomplished this morning.”

Johnson’s next career accomplishment is the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup title. He and crew chief Chad Knaus are back for their fifth season, and NASCAR Preseason Thunder at Las Vegas figures to provide a big boost – for Johnson’s and Gordon’s teams, and those of their teammates, Kyle Busch (No. 5 Kellogg’s Chevrolet) and Brian Vickers (No. 25 GMAC Chevrolet).

Last season, Johnson was the sole Hendrick Motorsports participant in the Chase. He’d like company in 2006.

“Tonight is going to be a very important night for Hendrick Motorsports,” Johnson said of Tuesday evening. “Tonight is when all the crew chiefs and engineers will get together and pour through all the data we’ve collected.”

Jamie McMurray (No. 26 Crown Royal/IRWIN Industrial Tools Ford), posted the top two times in Tuesday’s morning session – first at 169.316 mph (31.893 seconds), followed by the second-fastest time of 168.924 mph (31.967).

NASCAR Preseason Thunder at Las Vegas runs through Wednesday, Feb. 1. Teams may test on two of the three days. All sessions begin at 9 a.m., and end at 5 p.m. (PT), weather permitting, with a lunch break from noon until 1 p.m.

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