Why NASCAR Great Jimmie Johnson Is Scrapping His Retirement at Daytona

Johnson will drive the #84 Carvana Chevrolet at the 65th running of the 500 in Daytona Beach

February 17, 2023 7:11 am
Jimmie Johnson speaks at Daytona 500 media day in Daytona Beach.
Johnson has not run a Cup Series race since 2020.
James Gilbert/Stringer, Getty

Sometimes, they come back.

Just like Michael Jordan and Tom Brady, all-time NASCAR great Jimmie Johnson retired when he still had some gas left in the tank. And, just like Jordan and Brady, the 47-year-old decided he wanted to give his favorite sport another go.

Johnson’s un-retirement NASCAR tour will begin on Sunday when he gets behind the wheel of the #84 Carvana Chevrolet for the 65th running of the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway in Florida driving for the Legacy Motor Club team (formerly known as Petty GMS Motorsports) that he became a co-owner of in November. NASCAR’s third seven-time champion and the only driver to win five consecutive championships (2006-2010), Johnson is fifth on the all-time win list with 83 victories and is shooting for an 84th triumph that would take him past Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough and match Hall of Famers Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip on the all-time wins list.

Though Johnson’s opposition in the 40-car field on Sunday afternoon at the Great American Race will be a lot different than the competition he faced when he wrapped up his career with Hendrick Motorsports with a final Cup Series race in 2020, he’s fairly confident in how he’ll fare as getting back behind the wheel of a stock car was old hat — even though he’s spent his time away from NASCAR driving in the NTT IndyCar Series.

“It was nice. It felt like in an old shoe or something. It really didn’t take me many laps to feel comfortable and be back on pace,” Johnson tells InsideHook. “IndyCars have such a different feel and level of performance. I certainly got more comfortable, but it took a lifetime to develop the comfort and confidence that I do in a stock car. It was nice to get back in and have those feels. I don’t know how I’ll fit into the field come race time, but I suspect I’ll get back into it and be in the mix pretty quickly. I truly feel like I’ve got a shot to win.”

So why did Johnson decide to make his NASCAR return at Daytona? We asked him that, among other things.

InsideHook: What’s the difference between driving in NASCAR and driving in the IndyCar series?

Jimmie Johnson: The driving is quite a bit different. IndyCar is a high-performing sports car and a NASCAR vehicle is more like a Suburban. Both are fun to drive, go fast and perform, but there’s just a different feel and sweet spot in the vehicles. They accelerate, corner and stop differently. When you’re racing at a pro level, those little nuances are how you extract a tenth-of-a-second or two out of the car over a given lap.

IH: Are you looking forward to competing against some drivers you’ve never faced before?

JJ: There’s always an evolution of guys stepping away and younger talent coming in. I’ve been able to form friendships with most of the young guys. I raced against their fathers and I know their dads. Look at Zane Smith, I raced against his father in off-road trucks back when I was Zane’s age. Of there’s Jeff Burton’s son Harrison. I’ve raced against Jeff and I remember Harrison driving an electric Hot Wheels vehicle around in circles day after day and now he is in a Cup car. There are a lot of layers that are really neat to me. The young guys coming in are super talented and they might be excited to race an old seven-time champ. I’m super thrilled to be racing against them.

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IH: Why did you decide to give it another go with NASCAR? 

JJ: I really wanted to make 2023 a year of moving around and driving in different vehicles. I had my eye on a return to NASCAR to some degree and was hopeful to do some more IndyCar races this year, I was hoping to get a sports car program in place and hoping to go to Le Mans. My wishlist was quite wide and involved a lot of different racing and then this opportunity to not only drive but to also try my hand at ownership came along. It’s not something that was on my radar coming up through the ranks of racing, but it just felt right and I’m excited to be back.

IH: Are you still planning to race at Le Mans?

JJ: I am. This will be my first trip. I’m going via the Garage 56 program. We’re taking a NASCAR vehicle over there to run in its own category and I was invited to join Mike Rockenfeller and Jenson Button as the third driver in the three-driver lineup. It’s a Chevrolet vehicle and they’re allowing it to be modified some and come over and run. Hendrick Motorsports is building the car. There are a lot of synergies around the project that made this opportunity super appealing. Going to experience Le Mans is honestly the last thing on my bucket list. Some might say, especially across the pond, Le Mans is the biggest race in the world. I think there will be energy in and around it, but I’m going to have to go and experience it firsthand. I’m really excited about that.

IH: What are you looking forward to about being an owner as opposed to a driver?

JJ: Helping an organization grow. When I was driving the No. 48 car, I always enjoyed the team aspect and helping the team learn, grow and evolve. I certainly had my strengths and weaknesses, but I was just always intrigued by that aspect and enjoyed the success we had as a team. Now it’s just larger with two full-time cars and a part-time car. I’ve always only been focused on holding the steering wheel, but I’m finding gratification in different ways than I did five or 10 years ago. It’s evolving, but my love for this sport hasn’t wavered.

IH: What is it like taking your final lap knowing you’re headed for victory lane?

JJ: There’s nothing like knowing you’ve got one in the bag. It is so hard to win at this level and it really does take teamwork from top to bottom. You have the individual moment of, “Wow, I’ve driven this car and it’s going to happen,” but I’ve also always been able to feel the weight of the moment and everybody who has put so much into it. It’s really the ultimate reward. It’s hard to explain, but the experience is one I can’t let go of. I started chasing the driving experience when I was five and I still haven’t filled that bucket. I still love doing it every day.

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