Jimmie Johnson has spent many February days in Florida preparing for the NASCAR Cup Series season-opening Daytona 500. Johnson was back again this week, two years removed from his last full-time season in the stock car series. This time he was preparing for his first complete-season campaign in the open-wheel IndyCar Series by testing his Ganassi Racing Honda at Sebring International Raceway.
The 46-year-old, seven-time NASCAR champion remains invigorated by a late-career reboot. But an eye still glances curiously toward Daytona Beach, or his phone, to check in on old friends. They’re doing well.
His former Hendrick Motorsports team holds both front row spots with defending series champion Kyle Larson on the pole and Alex Bowman second for the Daytona 500 on Sunday.
“It’s a sport that has such a special place in my heart. Of course, Hendrick Motorsports, it means so much to me to know that they have the front row locked down,” Johnson told PlayUSA. “It’s really cool knowing [Larson crew chief] Cliff Daniels and my old team and my guys have that 5 car and their attention to detail.
“I didn’t see [time trials] last night, but I woke up this morning and checked on social and my old team’s first, and my old sponsor is second. So I have a lot of pride today. It feels really good for all my friends.”
Jacques Villeneuve’s Daytona 500 qualification strikes a chord with Jimmie Johnson
Though focused on his first race on Feb. 27 in the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Johnson was particularly interested in 50-year-old former Formula 1 and Indianapolis 500 champion Jacques Villeneuve qualifying for the Daytona 500 for the first time, with first-year Team Hezeberg, no less. Villeneuve had failed to qualify in one previous attempt 14 years ago. The feat seems for Johnson to arc his youth to his late-life career move to IndyCar.
“I know for a fact when I was getting started in the sport, I had a different perspective on the veterans, guys deep in their career continuing to come to the track and just wondered, ‘Why?’ in a lot of ways,” Johnson admitted.
“So, now, here I am that guy and I have such an appreciation for the others that are still doing it and for Jacques to be out of his comfort zone and trying something new at his age, I’m excited to see it.”
“I think it’s good for the sport. I’m excited for him and I’m excited for the rest of us old guys out there trying to have fun still.”
Johnson’s had plenty. His seven top-series NASCAR championships are tied for the all-time lead with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Seizing the record alone seemed a high probability when he raised what would be his last trophy in 2016.
But after winning five races that season in the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Johnson won the final three of his stock car career in 2017. He finished fifth on the all-time list with 83 victories – and never placed higher than tenth in the final standings his last four seasons.
After retiring from NASCAR, he signed with Ganassi to run the road/street course portion of the IndyCar season last year. It was an entirely new racing discipline for a kid who grew up in Southern California racing motorcycles in the desert.
It was a challenge and often humbling. Johnson ended 2021 with season-best 17th-place finishes at Laguna Seca and Long Beach. This year Johnson will add the high-speed, high-anxiety ovals, including the Indianapolis 500. The year began well, with Johnson teaming with fellow IndyCar driver Colton Herta to finish in the Race of Champions in Sweden.