How could a driver who has amassed seven championships and 83 victories at the NASCAR Cup Series level over the course of a stellar career have anything to learn? When that driver has not turned a single competitive lap in the Next Gen car and has been out of this form of racing since the end of the 2020 season, the answer to that question is quite a bit.
Jimmie Johnson retired from full-time competition in NASCAR two seasons ago to pursue racing in IndyCar. After finding only marginal success in open-wheel machines, the 47-year-old star is now back as a co-owner and part-time driver with Legacy Motor Club(formerly Petty GMS). The El Cajon, California native will compete in approximately five Cup Series events this year including the season-opening Daytona 500.
Johnson won the ‘Great American Race’ on two occasions while driving for Hendrick Motorsports.
As part of the process to get himself acclimated to the new car, Johnson took part in a test session on January 24th at Phoenix Raceway. During his time there, he also took the opportunity to meet with the media and answer questions about his pending return to this form of motorsports.
There is much to get used to, even for this veteran driver. However, time spent in a simulator before the trip to Arizona proved to be beneficial.
“This car is a lot different than what I drove here in 2020,” Johnson explained. “It is a fun car. I find the shifting, some of the technology on the car, the suspension on the car, there’s a lot of neat areas in which to work and a whole new kind of drive train that goes with that. The experience in the car is semi-familiar. I’m very happy to be here today to get a better handle of things. I think the new tire, the sidewall profile of the tire, and certainly the aero balance of the car is dramatically different than what I’ve experienced before. I’m thankful that I had some sim time because I think I would have busted my butt if I would have showed up here and tried to drive off of memory so I found that to be very helpful.”
But even with that simulator work, nothing can take the place of actually driving the car.
“Seat time is everything,” the legendary racer declared. “Drivers, teams, you try to do what you can in the sim but being at the track is where you learn everything. To run a limited schedule with a team running a limited schedule, we can keep our expectations realistic about the job ahead of us. This is a very competitive sport with a lot of great teams and drivers. I assume as I continue to get seat time in these cars I’ll understand where to find speed and continue to make myself more competitive.”
Another resource Johnson found to draw from was young Noah Gragson. Despite being essentially half of Johnson’s age, the thirteen-time NASCAR Xfinity Series race winner does have 18 starts in the Next Gen at the sport’s top level.
The driver who will pilot the No. 42 Chevrolet in 2023 for Legacy Motor Club advised his more accomplished teammate on the intricacies of shifting, which is different on the Next Gen than was the case in the car with which Johnson had so much success.
“Working through the shifting,” Johnson answered when asked about his conversation with Gragson. “My first outing I was really paying attention to what I was doing on the straightaways. I was having a hard time finding the upshift and the downshift timing. Once in the turn and loaded up, the car drives really nice but straightaways and the drive train, bump stops, aero platform, and all that’s going on, the car is kind of tricky on the straightaways. In my first outing, I thought I was doing everything wrong, but come to find out, it’s just how this car drives.”
Although there is not much that can be compared between an IndyCar and a Cup Series car, Johnson did notice a degree of similarity in the sequential gear boxes on both cars.
“I did notice some similarities to the IndyCar, and again going back to the sim session, I had last week, I’m so thankful for that because you cannot drive these cars as sideways as the generation of cars that I drove due to the sidewall and the aero properties of the car.”
The four-time winner of the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway would love to complete ‘The Double’ by racing in both that event and the Indianapolis 500 on the same day.
“I may not have said it publicly but I always felt like ’23 would be a year that I would try to run some Cup races, or maybe ‘The Double’,” Johnson stated. “That’s something I’ve had my eye on. As last season came to an end and this year, there’s been a lot of unique opportunities presented to me. I’m going to try to stay focused on the NASCAR side and the handful of races that I will have here and be involved with the team and try to help our two drivers out.”
While we know that Johnson will participate in the Daytona 500, little is known of which other races he will compete in this year.
“It all came together so late, I wish I had my schedule truly mapped out but we’re hopeful to get that done here in the coming weeks and know which races I’ll run in. My calendar is still up in the air but I’ve always felt like I’d come back and have a little fun in a Cup car. I just never saw myself coming back as a team owner, that’s really been the amazing opportunity. I’m so thankful that Maury Gallagher has opened this idea. We’ve done a lot in just a few months since I was here announcing. It’s going to be an exciting year for us.”
Johnson felt good about being back in a stock car again.
“It was nice to be back in my wheelhouse.”
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Richard Allen has been covering NASCAR and other forms of motorsports since 2008.
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