LAS VEGAS -- The only sure win in Las Vegas these days is betting on Jimmie Johnson.
The defending series champion beat teammate Jeff Gordon yesterday to win his third straight Nextel Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Only this one came under extremely different conditions on a reconfigured racetrack that gave everyone fits.
"This track was a different challenge for us, no doubt about it," said Johnson, who led Gordon across the finish line for a 1-2 finish in the UAW-
Johnson suffered a pit-road penalty and a slight bounce off the wall, but otherwise had few problems navigating his way around the track that was under intense scrutiny all weekend because of changes owner Bruton Smith made to the 1 1/2-mile speedway.
The changes included an increase in the banking from 12 degrees to 20, and a curved pit lane unlike anything the drivers had seen before. Because the new surface produced such fast speeds, Goodyear had to bring a very hard left-side tire that was capable of withstanding the loads.
It created a perfect storm of slick asphalt, little grip, and a garage full of grumbling drivers.
"I felt like I was on ice from Lap 1 until the last one," said Gordon, the four-time series champion. "There is no reason for us to show up at racetracks and be at a white-knuckle experience for an entire weekend."
That sentiment was echoed over and over.
"It was out of control pretty much all day," Clint Bowyer said.
"It was the poorest race I've ever been in. It wasn't fun to drive," David Stremme said.
"You couldn't run side-by-side. When you got alongside of somebody, you were scared to death you were going to wreck," Matt Kenseth said.
The race was marred by nine cautions, most of them products of the new configuration and tough tire. David Ragan spun on the opening lap, and Casey Mears, Robby Gordon, and Ward Burton were in a three-car accident 10 laps in. Joe Nemechek and Dave Blaney wrecked eight laps later.
"There's just no grip at all," said Mears, who blamed Robby Gordon for the accident. "Everybody is having a hard time getting a hold of their cars."
Johnson understood Goodyear's choice of tire based on the short time frame the company had between the January test that revealed the high speeds to when a choice of tire had to be selected. But he called on the company to figure out a way to work more with the teams in the future.
"When we go to new surfaces, we need to be on the conservative side and we need to be able to test it," Johnson said. "To show up and not test what you are going to race is where all of the frustration comes from."
Johnson led 89 of the 267 laps en route to the win.
Jeff Gordon dominated by leading 111 laps, and appeared poised to tie the late Dale Earnhardt for sixth place with 76 career victories. But Gordon thought he had a flat left-rear tire following a late round of pit stops, and gave up the lead with 32 laps to go when Jeff Burton passed him.
Johnson got by both of them five laps later and held on after a final restart with 11 to go. He credited it to the final pit stop, when crew chief Chad Knaus made a tire pressure adjustment that balanced out the damage he received from brushing the wall.
"Over the long haul, I really don't think I had the speed to run with either of the Jeffs -- Jeff Gordon or Jeff Burton," he said. "But at the end when we came in and put right-side tires on . . . I had that edge that I could lean on and really push hard to get by Gordon and Burton and then hold off them at the end."
Denny Hamlin finished third and was followed by Kenseth and Mark Martin, who is still on top of the points standings.