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For NASCAR’s Jimmie Johnson, this year’s Daytona 500 heralds a new start

Jimmie Johnson will race in the Daytona 500 for the first time since 2020. (Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
9 min

CONCORD, N.C. — In a borrowed racecar at a rival team’s headquarters, seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson is practicing pit stops with a crew of young contractors he just met.

Johnson guns the motor to get the automotive equivalent of a running start from about 50 yards away, zooms to the mocked-up pit stall and brakes precisely on his marks as five eager crew members leap off a knee-high concrete wall and swarm the car, hiking its right side with a jack, swapping old tires for new and racing to the left side to do the same.

They repeat this furious ballet again and again, rehearsing every pit-stop variation — two-tire changes and four, with gas and no gas — pausing between each rep to critique the instant-replay footage shot by a tiny camera suspended overhead. The slightest misstep or hesitation could cost Johnson precious track position in Sunday’s Daytona 500, when this same crew will service Johnson’s No. 84 Chevy in his limited return to NASCAR.

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When the hour-long session ends, Johnson gathers the youngsters to thank them for their hard work and remind them to “have some fun” when they reunite at Daytona International Speedway for NASCAR’s biggest race.

“Yes, there is pressure. But we all have trained for this moment,” Johnson says, trying to ease any nerves by downplaying the gap between his experience and theirs.

It is vast.

A two-time Daytona 500 champion, Johnson is one of only three drivers to win seven NASCAR Cup championships in the sport’s history, along with the late Dale Earnhardt and stock-car racing’s “King,” Richard Petty, now 85.

At 47, he’s embarking on yet another unorthodox career move after a two-year sojourn in IndyCar, which he found a far greater challenge than anticipated.

Johnson isn’t returning to NASCAR simply to run a few races this season. He’s also returning as co-owner of the team he will compete for, having bought a stake in Petty GMS Racing in November. The team — now owned by Petty, Johnson and commercial airline entrepreneur Maury Gallagher — has since been renamed and rebranded as Legacy Motor Club to leverage the fame of the two living seven-time champions.

“A lot of people are asking: ‘Why? Why come back? If you run bad, it’s going to ruin your legacy,’ ” Johnson said in an interview after pit-stop practice as he drove his Chevy SUV 45 miles north to his own team’s complex in Statesville, N.C.

“I hope people understand that I am still trying to build a legacy. I would love, of course, to be competitive [in the car] and win. But my commitment is also to help build a team for the future in Legacy Motor Club. This isn’t just a shot in the dark: ‘Hey, let me go invest in this race team and play for a couple years and see where it goes!’ I don’t exist that way. Everything I do is intentional. It’s very planned out.”

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‘I want to do this again’

Returning to NASCAR to run select races serves a twofold purpose for Legacy MC, which fields the No. 42 and No. 43 Chevys for rising talents Noah Gragson, 24, and Erik Jones, 26.

As the team’s occasional third driver, Johnson can help gather data with each lap he makes in his No. 84 Chevy — data that, combined with insight gained from “seat time,” should shorten his teammates’ learning curve. Moreover, Johnson’s return to racing — in the Daytona 500, the inaugural Chicago street race July 2 and three events to be named — will draw attention and, ideally, more corporate sponsors to Legacy.

On a personal level, it also feeds a passion that’s still deep.

Johnson started racing at 4, first in motorcycles, then off-road trucks, stock cars and IndyCars. Apart from his family, there is nothing he loves more.

He’s hardly the first sports champion to un-retire after stepping away — Michael Jordan and Tom Brady, most famed among them — although Johnson was careful not to use the word “retirement” in bowing out of NASCAR after the 2020 season.

Each athlete is surely different, he notes when asked what makes it so difficult for champion athletes to walk away. In his case, he said, he started racing out of a childhood passion, never dreaming it would lead to a career and certainly not multiple championships.

But for all the rewards, the stress and pressure eventually took a toll.

“There’s a grind to it,” Johnson said. “And at some point, the grind catches up with you. You realize: ‘I’ve been at this awhile. This feels right and makes sense: Now is the time.’ So when you step away, it may be logical and may be great for a variety of reasons. But you can’t control the passion. That’s what passion is. You just feel, ‘I want to do this again.’ ”

Learning his limits

The fundamental myth of stock-car racing is that anyone can do it — at least anyone with enough daring and horsepower. The racecars are built to look like the Camaros, Mustangs and Camrys on the showroom floor, so how hard could turning left be?

The truth is, however, that it takes far more than a heavy right foot to succeed in any form of motorsports. It takes relentless obsession with detail, calm under pressure, patience and restraint.

Johnson learned this while upside-down in the Mexican desert after a momentary lapse in focus launched his off-road truck into a ravine in the late stages of the 1995 Baja 1000. More than 12 hours passed before help arrived, leaving plenty of time for Johnson to berate himself.

“My biggest fear was that I was going to get fired!” recalled Johnson, then barely out of his teens. “I was so fired! I had crashed so much that year; I had been so aggressive. I had made all these mistakes. And here I am with another wrecked truck and just yelling at myself inside, ‘You dumba--!’ ”

He ended up getting fired by his team, but Chevrolet continued its backing, believing in his potential.

And Johnson made a career-defining change in his approach to racing.

Until that crash, he had been so desperate to make a name in racing that all he cared about was speed. Going fast was the surest way to get noticed by team owners and sponsors, which was what he needed most. His mother drove a school bus; his father operated heavy equipment. While they supported their son’s racing, they couldn’t bankroll his dreams.

The lesson he took from the crash was that racecars have limits that must be respected. It starts with understanding what 100 percent of a car’s ability is — and not exceeding it.

“It’s very easy in a car to drive above the limit of the vehicle or, I guess, drive above the limits of yourself and make silly mistakes,” he explained. “You’re doing more than 10 miles an hour faster than you should, and you crash. Or you think, ‘I’m in a nice little rhythm, so I’ll just try harder!’ Now I’m over that 100 percent mark, and BOOM! I crash.”

Playing with a different racecar

As Johnson prepares for Sunday’s Daytona 500 — a race he won in 2006 and 2013 — his challenge isn’t simply picking up where he left off in 2020. It’s getting acclimated to NASCAR’s radically redesigned “Next Gen” car that debuted last season.

“He’s coming in as an underdog,” said Fox analyst Clint Bowyer, who raced against Johnson more than 500 times during his own 16-year NASCAR Cup career. “This car is completely different from anything he has ever been in.”

The Next Gen car was designed to contain runaway costs for team owners (in lieu of a salary cap) by standardizing the chassis and parts. The bodies are no longer made of steel but a carbon composite that holds up better in crashes. The car also sits higher off the ground, with bigger wheels and tires fastened by a single lug-nut rather than five small ones, which shaves about three seconds off pit stops.

And the handling — particularly at 2½-mile Daytona International Speedway, where the aerodynamic draft plays a major role in passing — is wildly different.

“The way it drafts at Daytona — on the sides and nose-to-tail — is total opposite of what he was accustomed to,” Bowyer said. “Literally, we’re playing with a different football. We’re playing with a different baseball.”

That said, Bowyer considers Johnson a once-in-a-generation talent, on par with the greatest drivers in NASCAR history, so he can just as easily vouch for why Johnson can succeed Sunday.

“He’s a seven-time champion because he could adapt better than anyone else,” Bowyer said. “If anybody can clear those hurdles, it’s going to be Jimmie Johnson.”

Counting on wisdom

Johnson cleared the first hurdle Wednesday, along with action-sports ace Travis Pastrana, securing his place in the 40-car field by turning the fastest qualifying lap among the six drivers vying for four spots set aside for teams without NASCAR charters (akin to a franchise).

What remains is to control every variable he can: Don’t overdrive the car, stay patient, call on more than two decades of stock-car experience, and tap every insight he has gained in his furious preparation the past two months. That includes his one allotted Next Gen practice session at Phoenix Raceway, the countless laps he logged in a computer-generated Next Gen car on his home racing simulator, film study of last year’s Daytona qualifying duels and advice from his new crew chief — veteran Todd Gordon — as well as young teammates and many friends in the sport.

What once was muscle memory may not serve Johnson well in this new car. But there is a wisdom that comes with age — at least for those determined to keep improving. And Johnson believes that can compensate for anything time has taken away as he readies for a Daytona 500 with more unknowns than he has ever known.

The one thing he’s not doing is resting on his laurels.

“I think sport doesn’t care,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t matter what you did in sports. It’s about the now.”