Jimmie Johnson, NASCAR’s Unlikely Prodigal Son, Returns at Daytona

By just about every metric, Jimmie Johnson is one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers his seven Cup Series championships tie him with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. for the most ever.

But after he retired from stock-car racing in 2020, Johnson seemed to get as far away from NASCAR as possible: He represented the United States at the Race of Champions last year in Sweden; he competed in vintage car races at the 2022 Goodwood Revival in England; he dabbled in endurance racing; and last season, he participated full time in the open-wheel series IndyCar, which included his first start at the Indianapolis 500.

“Growing up, my heroes took their helmets anywhere around the world and drove every vehicle,” Johnson said in a recent phone interview. “I found myself in a very fortunate and unique situation to do some of that over the last two years.”

The only thing that eluded him was success: Johnson, 47, a novice in open-wheel racing, often ran near the back of the pack in IndyCar and was considered one of the weaker links on his endurance teams.

But now, after broadening his racing horizons, he is set to return to NASCAR at Sunday’s Daytona 500, this time as a part-time racer and a partial owner of Legacy Motor Club, the team formerly known as Petty GMS Motorsports. He joins an ownership group that includes Petty — the 85-year-old NASCAR legend — and the airline entrepreneur Maury Gallagher.

Motorsports are experiencing an upswing in popularity in the United States, Johnson said, highlighted by the country’s increased interest in Formula 1. He believes NASCAR is poised for similar success and felt that this year was the right time to return.

“The water is rising in the harbor, and it’s lifting all ships,” Johnson said. “In NASCAR, we’re seeing younger owners enter the sport now with different ways of doing business, different ideas and culture. Everyone is really rethinking things, growing and developing.”

For years, NASCAR has hoped to recapture the popularity it once enjoyed in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when drivers like Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon were household names. Johnson came on the scene around then, too, and broke through to dominate the sport, winning five straight Cup Series titles from 2006-10. But interest in NASCAR waned in the years that followed, with many pundits blaming the decline on changes to the racing format, the retirements of star drivers and the introduction of an unpopular, boxy standardized chassis in 2007.

The dip in popularity was particularly evident in TV ratings. According to Nielsen, the 2006 Daytona 500 — which Johnson won — earned 19.4 million viewers, the highest in the event’s history. Last year’s edition garnered less than half of that with 8.9 million viewers, though that represented an improvement over the prior two years.

In recent years, the organization has shown a willingness to experiment to reach new audiences by hosting more races at road courses in a departure from its traditional oval tracks, staging more events on dirt tracks and running exhibitions inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. In July, NASCAR will host a street race in Chicago, a first of its kind for the series.

“There have been a lot of changes made within the sport, a push to add new markets, and there’s just a lot of energy and excitement around NASCAR,” Johnson said. “I really believe in where the sport is going.”

Even the concept of team ownership has begun to change. Teams like 23XI Racing, co-owned by the retired N.B.A. star Michael Jordan, and Trackhouse Racing, co-owned by the Grammy Award-winning rapper Pitbull — which both debuted in 2021 — have shown the value of creating a strong brand identity for themselves, according to Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief operating officer. Both teams offer extensive merchandise and have carved out distinct presences on social media.

“One thing that has been lacking is that brand name around a team, as far as it being almost like its own entertainment company,” O’Donnell said. “We saw with Trackhouse, for example, how they approached the marketplace — I think it opened a lot of eyes. You can become a part of NASCAR but also branch out and be your own brand.”

Petty said that this “new-school” thinking was what Johnson brought to the table and was the driving force behind his team’s rebrand.

“This is the start of what we’re trying to accomplish in the long run, looking five and 10 years down the line,” Petty said. “We want to make it so people will pull for the team no matter who’s driving or sponsoring the cars, or whatever the circumstances may be. It’s sort of like a football team — you still pull for the team no matter who the quarterback is.”

Johnson’s return to NASCAR also coincides with the sport’s looking to raise its international profile. In June, NASCAR will enter a modified version of its next-gen stock car into 24 Hours of Le Mans, the famous French endurance race. Johnson will be one of the car’s drivers, joining a team consisting of Mike Rockenfeller, a past Le Mans winner, and Jenson Button, the 2009 Formula 1 world champion.

“Le Mans is really the last thing on my bucket list,” Johnson said. “As I’ve traveled the world and attended other events, I’ve always been impressed and surprised how much fans and other competitors know about NASCAR. So, I’m happy that we’re trying to tap into that and make our appeal more worldwide.”

International expansion is a major goal of NASCAR’s in the next few years, O’Donnell said. The organization has four racing series in international markets — Canada, Mexico, Brazil and Europe — and O’Donnell said the objectives were to grow those series, potentially bring a Cup Series event to those markets and attract international drivers to compete in the Cup Series in the U.S.

Those efforts have already yielded results: Last year, Daniel Suárez of Trackhouse Racing became the first Mexican driver to win a race in NASCAR’s top series. And last year’s Cup Series race at Watkins Glen, N.Y., featured drivers from seven different countries — the most in the organization’s history.

O’Donnell said that Johnson, who now has a wealth of international racing experience, will be a key player as NASCAR looks to further expand abroad.

“He’s a terrific ambassador for the sport and someone we’ll lean on to give feedback on how to grow in the right way,” O’Donnell said.

As for this weekend’s Daytona 500, it will be the first time Johnson has ever competed in NASCAR’s next-gen car, which debuted last year and features a new transmission and different drafting dynamics than the previous stock cars. Since Johnson is not a full-time Cup Series driver this season and will be competing in select races, he had to earn his spot in Sunday’s field through qualifying earlier this week.

And although Johnson has won the Daytona 500 twice, his fellow NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin, a veteran of the sport and a founder of the 23XI team, expressed skepticism that his former rival could remain competitive at the race and throughout the season.

“I hate tainting what I’m going to think about him if he comes in and struggles — which is the most likely scenario,” Hamlin said on his podcast this month.

But other drivers were less concerned about Johnson’s ability. Scott Dixon, a six-time IndyCar series champion, worked as Johnson’s teammate the past two seasons at the Chip Ganassi Racing team in IndyCar and said that Johnson’s championship pedigree was on full display.

“Jimmie’s not scared, man — inside or outside of the car,” Dixon said. “His attention to detail and work ethic was outstanding, and we all saw the gains internally more than people did in the grandstands. Returning to NASCAR will be like muscle memory, and I have no doubt that if he has a winning car, he could win the race.”

Johnson himself is less concerned about results. The Daytona 500 will be the first of a handful of races he will compete in this season, and his primary goal is to gain experience inside the car to provide feedback to his team’s engineers and full-time drivers. But if things break right, anything could happen.

“It’ll be a learning curve to get up to speed, but I’ll get there,” he said. “My objective is to survive, gain experience — and hopefully be there at the end.”

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