FOX NASCAR Insider
AVONDALE, Ariz. – Jimmie Johnson relished the chance to get back into a NASCAR Cup Series car, even if it probably won’t help him much when he tries to qualify for the Daytona 500 in three weeks.
Johnson put in a few laps Tuesday in a Cup car at Phoenix Raceway, where he last drove in NASCAR in 2020. The seven-time Cup champion has spent the past two years racing in IndyCar, and the stock car, a much heavier car with less horsepower and not braking on a dime, it obviously felt different.
“The speed felt different, that’s for sure,” Johnson said. “And then just the mass of the vehicle – such a different feel to the stock car with all the mass trying to brake it and trying to change direction, trying to use the throttle.
“With IndyCar, it’s so crisp and nimble. But it’s been hard for me to feel and feel, so it’s nice to be back in a car that warned me, gave me some cues that it slips and slides.”
Johnson, 47, announced in November that he would return to NASCAR as a part-time driver and co-owner of what is now Legacy Motor Club. His test was allowed under a provision in which NASCAR allows elite drivers to test a Next Gen car (the NASCAR Cup car that debuted last year) at a track where the driver will not race.
It’s designed to allow a driver to adjust to the car, and Johnson was certainly able to use the test to get to know the vehicle. Johnson had spent some time in Chevrolet’s racing simulator to prepare.
“I’m thankful that I got some practice time because I think I would have busted my ass if I’d have come in here and tried to pull off a recall,” said Johnson, who noted how different the tires are for the Next Gen car . “So I found it very helpful and had a good day.”
But the 1-mile Phoenix track runs nothing like the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway, where Johnson will have to qualify to enter the Daytona 500. There are only four spots open for non-rental cars , and Johnson will be one of at least five drivers (and possibly as many as eight) vying for those four spots.
“I wouldn’t say anything has changed for me in relation to the 500,” Johnson said of the test. “But now you drive the car and have an idea to work with some minor changes that we were allowed through the test procedure, … for me, it was good to get back in one of these cars and go through the steps .”
Just knowing some of the elements of how the car drives is something Johnson hopes can help him. He said he learned something about when to step up and down from the throttle and shift mechanism of the Next Gen car.
“Hopefully it can be applied everywhere,” Johnson said. “I don’t think what I learned here today will carry over to Daytona. … That’s its own animal. But it was a good track today. And a good day for me in the car.”
Johnson has not set the rest of his 2023 schedule beyond Daytona, but said Tuesday that races at the Indianapolis 500 appear unlikely. He would like to compete in Hendrick Motorsports’ “Garage 56” program, which brings a Next Gen type vehicle to the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
“It’s not off, but I’ll know pretty soon,” Johnson said of racing in the Indy 500. “It’s close. [to not happening]. There are some moving pieces with the Garage 56 opportunity, the sponsorship, the timing and where it all sits.
“I don’t have clarity yet, but I hope very soon.”
Working with Johnson in Phoenix was Todd Gordon, a former Cup champion crew chief for Joey Logano. Johnson announced on Monday that Gordon would be his crew chief for his Cup starts.
“Todd is a true professional,” Johnson said. “Obviously, his stats speak for themselves. I’m trying to find someone who can really help fit in, work with me and also help the organization — Todd is a perfect candidate for that.”
Gordon left Team Penske after the 2021 season, working primarily as a radio analyst on shows and broadcasts.
“Runners never give up, at least the desire,” Gordon said, “Someone said, ‘You’re scratching an itch.’ He’s great in that regard.
“And the other part is that the other parts of my career at the moment keep me relevant. It keeps me informed about the garage and the cars and I think it will help me on that side.”
Johnson’s co-owner Richard Petty, who was also a seven-time Cup champion, said Johnson would be like a rookie in the Next Gen car because it’s so different.
So did Johnson feel like a rookie Tuesday?
“I hope not,” Johnson said. “In some ways, I did.”
Bob Pockrass covers NASCAR for FOX Sports. He has spent decades covering motorsports, including the last 30 Daytona 500s, with stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter @bobpockrassand register at FOX Sports NASCAR Newscast with Bob Pockrass.
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