Jimmie Johnson salutes a long, strange trip through the desert


Jimmie Johnson’s Southern 500 throwback is a tribute to a long, strange trip through the desert for the seven-time Cup champion.

The No. 48 Chevrolet is painted for Sunday’s Labor Day weekend classic at Darlington Raceway in the colors of “Butch,” a pickup truck that Johnson drove to several victories in the early to mid-1990s.

TONIGHT: Southern 500, 6 p.m., NBCSN

But it was a crash during the 1995 Baja 1000 that might be the most memorable moment for “Butch” and Johnson, who fell asleep behind the wheel while leading nearly 900 miles and more than 20 hours into the famed event.

The wreckage of Butch after the 1995 crash in the Baja 1000 (Team Chevy PR).

“I woke up in time to realize we were going off the course at a high rate of speed,” Johnson recalled during a 2002 interview. “We hit some rocks and flipped off through the desert. There was a huge mountain range in between the course and the asphalt road. The radio communication didn’t get across to the chase vehicle.”

Though word was relayed back through other competitors, Johnson and his co-driver weren’t reached until the next day. Johnson was sleeping when his rescuers arrived and gave them a bit of a scare.

“The gnats and flies were real bad and I put a rain parka on top of me and took a nap,” said Johnson, who escaped injury with his co-driver in the crash. “When the chase vehicle finally came down the road, my co-rider was sitting on a rock passing the time. When they saw me under the yellow parka, they thought I was dead. I remember hearing somebody screaming and yelling that Jimmie was dead, and I sat up with the parka and it was kind of a funny incident.”

At 20, Johnson was the youngest driver in the Trophy Truck division of the Baja 1000, which he said shaped his driving style by turning him into a thinking man’s racer. The Hendrick Motorsports driver also finished 10th with Butch in the Baja 500, crashed in a Barstow, California, race and finished 13th at Laughlin, Nevada. But Johnson also went airborne for 86 feet with Butch, winning a $7,500 exhibition for the longest jump at the “Laughlin Leap.”

“I’ve always wanted to throwback to the off-road industry,” said Johnson, who moved to asphalt racing and NASCAR in 1998. “Within that, there were probably two or three paint schemes that we had to choose from. For me, and the amount of times I’ve told that Baja 1000 story and the fact that we had the truck and were restoring it, it just felt like the right way to go with it.

“To have all the text messages and phone calls and social media and all my old friends and people that remember that truck, it’s been a very cool experience down memory lane so far.”

“Butch” also was featured in Saturday’s Southern 500 parade after Johnson bought it from a family that had restored the historic truck for use in lower-level desert racing. Larry Ragland raced the truck to several victories, including the 1991 Baja 1000 overall.

“They gave me a fair price to buy it back because of the sentimental value to it,” Johnson said. “There are still two off-road trucks that I don’t have in my possession that I want, but unfortunately the people that own them really want to make a pretty penny off me.”

The Hendrick Motorsports driver, who is trying to avoid missing the playoffs for the first time in his career, also will be carrying another sentimental touch – an angel patch that his grandmother often sewed on his firesuits in the 1990s.

Alex Bowman confident as he returns to racing from back injury


CONCORD, N.C. — Alex Bowman watched the rain-filled skies over Charlotte Motor Speedway Saturday with more than a touch of disappointment.

As weather threatened to cancel Saturday night’s scheduled NASCAR Cup Series practice at the speedway, Bowman saw his chances to testing his car — and his body — dissolving in the raindrops. NASCAR ultimately cancelled practice and qualifying because of rain.

MORE: Wet weather cancels Charlotte Cup practice, qualifying

Bowman suffered a fractured vertebra in a sprint car accident last month and has missed three Cup races while he recovers. Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600, the season’s longest race, is scheduled to mark his return to the Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 Chevrolet.

“It would have been really nice to kickstart that with practice today,” Bowman said. “I haven’t raced or competitively driven a race car in a month. I’m trying to understand where my rusty areas are going to be and where I’m still good.”

Bowman ran 200 laps in a test season at North Wilkesboro Speedway this week, but, of course, that doesn’t compare with the faster speeds and tougher G-forces he’ll experience over 400 laps Sunday at CMS.

Bowman admitted that he is still experiencing pain from the back injury — his car flipped several times — and that he expects some pain during the race. But he said he is confident he’ll be OK and that the longer race distance won’t be an issue.

“I broke my back a month ago, and there’s definitely things that come along with that for a long time,” he said. “I have some discomfort here and there and there are things I do that don’t feel good. That’s just part of it. It’s stuff I’ll have to deal with. But, for the most part, I’m back to normal.

“I’m easing back into being in the gym. I’m trying to be smart with things. If I twist the wrong way, sometimes it hurts. In the race car at the end of a six-hour race, I’m probably not going to be the best.”

The sprint car crash interrupted what had been a fine seasonal start for Bowman. Although winless, he had three top fives and six top 10s in the first 10 races.

“I’m excited to be back,” Bowman said. “Hopefully, we can pick up where we left off and be strong right out of the gate.”

He said he hopes to return to short-track racing but not in the near future.

“Someday I want to get back in a sprint car or midget,” he said. “I felt like we were just getting rolling in a sprint car. That night we were pretty fast. Definitely a bummer there. That’s something I really want to conquer and be competitive at in the World of Outlaws or High Limits races. Somebody I’ll get back to that. It’s probably smart if I give my day job a little alone time for a bit.”




Charlotte NASCAR Cup Series starting lineup: Rain cancels qualifying


CONCORD, N.C. — William Byron and Kevin Harvick will start Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series 600-mile race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on the front row after wet weather cancelled Saturday night qualifying.

Rain pelted the CMS area much of the day Saturday, and NASCAR announced at 3:45 p.m. that Cup practice and qualifying, scheduled for Saturday night, had been cancelled.

MORE: Alex Bowman confident as he returns to cockpit

The starting field was set by the NASCAR rulebook.

Following Byron and Harvick in the starting top 10 will be Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Bubba Wallace, Ryan Blaney, Christopher Bell and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

The elimination of the practice session was particularly problematic for Alex Bowman, scheduled to return to racing Sunday after missing three weeks with a back injury, and Jimmie Johnson, who will be starting only his third race this year. Johnson will start 37th — last in the field.

Charlotte Cup starting lineup

Wet weather cancels Charlotte Cup Series practice, qualifying


CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR Cup Series drivers will start the longest race of the season with no practice or qualifying.

Wet weather and predictions of more to come led NASCAR to cancel Saturday night’s Cup Series practice and qualifying in mid-afternoon. The field for Sunday’s 600-mile race was set by the NASCAR rulebook, placing William Byron and Kevin Harvick on the front row for the  scheduled 6 p.m. start.

MORE: Charlotte Cup starting lineup

MORE: Alex Bowman confident as he returns to cockpit

Weather also could be an issue Sunday as more rain is predicted for the speedway area.

Drivers were scheduled to practice at 7 p.m. Saturday. That session was to be followed by qualifying at 7:45 p.m. The cancellations were announced at 3:45 p.m.

The time-trial cancellation marked the first time in 64 years that qualifying has been canceled for the 600.

Charlotte Xfinity race postponed to Monday by weather


CONCORD, N.C. — Persistent rain forced the postponement of Saturday’s scheduled 300-mile NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway to Monday.

The race is scheduled to start at noon ET. It will be televised by FS1 and broadcast by the Performance Racing Network and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

Driver introductions and other pre-race activities were held at the track Saturday, but rain that had dampened the track in the morning hours returned. After several attempts at drying the track, the race was postponed after heavier rain returned in mid-afternoon.

Justin Allgaier will start the race from the pole position.