“I’m back.” Remember that short phrase back in 1995? Michael Jordan shockingly retired from the NBA after he won the 1993 NBA Championship. It was at the time, the Chicago Bulls’ third straight title. He returned two seasons later.
Between that break, he played baseball. He’d return to the NBA and win three more titles.
Jimmie Johnson is following a somewhat similar path. He retired from NASCAR after 19-full-time seasons in NASCAR’s premiere series. His final race was here, in Phoenix, for the 2020 season finale. Now, two years later, he’s announcing that he’s coming back.
On the 2022 Championship Weekend, Johnson announced that he’s returning to the sport to what made Jimmie Johnson, just that, Jimmie Johnson. He didn’t fully retire when he stepped away in Nov. 2020. He went part-time racing in the NTT INDYCAR Series in 2021 and full-time for 2022. Now, like Jordan, after spending two years away from the series, he’s back.
“It’s great to be back in NASCAR,” stated Johnson. “When the INDYCAR season ended I started on this journey of what was next. Maury and I connected, this opportunity came to light and it’s the perfect fit for me. Team ownership makes so much sense at this stage of my career and after spending time with Maury and his family, talking with Mike (Beam), Dave (Elenz, crew chief of the No. 43) and Joey (Cohen, Director of Competition and Engineering), I realized this was something I wanted to be involved with from both the business perspective and on the competition side. If I’m going to commit to something like this, I want to make a difference and have something tangible to show for it when it’s all said and done. So, this opportunity with Petty GMS is all of that and much more.”
Johnson is a seven-time series champion (tied for most ever) and has reached victory lane 83 times (tied for 6th best). While he’s not going for any more championships as a driver, he’ll certainly be doing so as an owner. On Friday, Johnson and Petty GMS Racing announced that Johnson has purchased stake in the organization and will remarkably join Richard Petty on the same team.
Yes, two of the drivers with seven-titles are joining forces. Petty and Johnson on one team.
“I couldn’t be happier to have Jimmie Johnson joining Petty GMS,” stated Maury Gallagher “We have been consistent since we began our Cup effort last year in wanting to be up front and have a winning program. No one in the modern era of NASCAR has won more than Jimmie. Having a driver, the caliber of Jimmie, driving our equipment and being able to provide feedback to our crew chiefs and engineers but most importantly, mentoring Erik and Noah will be invaluable. Perhaps most important of all, Jimmie will be a great partner. I know I speak for all the Petty GMS team members, including Richard Petty, in welcoming Jimmie to the team. No one else will be able to say they have two seven-time Cup champions on their team. We are looking to make a strong statement next year and show that we are here to contend for wins and championships. I can’t wait to see what we can achieve together.”
Petty GMS was formed in December 2021 when Gallagher, a two-time NASCAR Truck Series Championship team owner, purchased Richard Petty Motorsports. Petty, “The King”, a seven-time NASCAR Cup Series Champion, Inaugural NASCAR Hall of Fame Class member, and the all-time winningest driver in NASCAR history, will continue with the team his family started in 1949. Mike Beam, who began his career with Petty Enterprises as crew chief for Kyle Petty in the early 1980s, will remain in his role as team President.
“What an exciting time for Petty GMS,” said Petty. “This year we’ve accomplished so much together with Maury and now adding Jimmie will only continue to help us grow. To have Jimmie – another seven-time champion – as a part of the team, and his abilities both on track and off will be special for Petty GMS. I’m looking forward to having him as a part of our team and seeing what we can build together.”
Johnson calls this a life changing opportunity and one that he had to take.
“I’m fortunate that I had incredible mentors throughout my life, and I’ve always tried to pay that forward,” said Johnson. “My experience and energy will add value to a team with young drivers like Erik and Noah – I feel like I can be a good resource both on and off the track.”
The remainder of Johnson’s racing schedule, partnerships, paint scheme and car number will be revealed at a future date. One race we know that he’ll run is the Daytona 500.
As far as what led him here, he says that even if he was going to return to an INDYCAR seat in 2023, he was always going to run some NASCAR events too. He talked to Jeff Gordon and Rick Hendrick as well as Justin Marks about a potential of doing so, but nothing ever got passed the 50% mark of making it truly real. Once the INDYCAR season ended, talks sped up.
His agent is Alan Miller and Miller also represents Erik Jones which is why it led him down this path to Petty GMS.
As far as what his other racing endeavors for 2023 could be, Johnson doesn’t know yet. He would like to run in INDYCAR, sports cars, he has an off road race offered as well as a Chili Bowl opportunity with Alex Bowman if he wants it. However, with a Chevrolet team now, he’s not gone down that road of if there’s going to be conflicts.
You also have to think of who they’re getting drivers and crew chiefs from too. Could a future with JR Motorsports be? Noah Gragson is moving up to the 42 car in 2023. His crew chief at JRM is coming with him. Erik Jones’ crew chief was also Gragson’s crew chief at JRM too before moving up to pair with Jones this past year.
That would rock this NASCAR world if you have Earnhardt-Johnson-Petty owning one team.
“Yeah, I think so. I think Kelley and Dale both, I think long-term, they want to be owners in the Cup Series, and I’ll support them any way I can,” said Rick Hendrick. “We’ll have an alliance with them, but I’ll have to divest my interest there, and that’s okay because I think it’s served its purpose in Xfinity races. And now, if they move up into Cup, then I’m ready to step out and help them any way I can.
“But I think that’s their long-term goal, and I think they should be in the Cup Series.”
As far as why?
“Just because of their name and their heritage,” Hendrick continued. “I believe that it would be good for the sport to have an Earnhardt owner in the Cup Series.”
With Johnson’s clear past with HMS and Earnhardt’s ties, does Petty GMS grow to a Hendrick satellite team in the future?
“This is a tremendous day for our sport,” Hendrick said of Johnson’s new endeavor. “Jimmie (Johnson) is one of the all-time great champions on the racetrack, and I know he’ll apply the same mentality to his role as a team owner. When he sets his mind to something, the level of commitment and work ethic he brings is unsurpassed. Seeing Jimmie in a firesuit with his name on the roof of a Chevrolet at the DAYTONA 500 is going to be very special for a lot of people. Competing against him will certainly be a change, and a big challenge, but we welcome his return to NASCAR and look forward to the next chapter of a truly remarkable career.”
As far as Johnson, why now? He’s made 686 career starts and will return to the cockpit for select races. His stats were on a downward trend when he stepped away the first time. From 5 wins in his final championship winning season in 2016 to three in 2017 to none in 2018, 2019 or 2020, he just wasn’t racing like he used to.
Johnson had at least 11 top five finishes very year from 2003 through 2016. He had 14 total over the next four seasons combined. On top of that, Johnson had at least 20 Top-10 finishes every year from 2003 through 2015. That dropped to 16 in 2016, 11 in 2017, 11 again in 2018, 12 in 2019 and a career-low of 10 in 2020.
He also went from 1,290 laps led in 2007 to 1,959 in 2008 to 2,238 in 2009, to 1,315 in 2010 to 1,115 in 2011, 1,744 in 2012, 1,985 in 2013 and 1,310 in 2014 down to 558 in 2015, 737 in 2016, 218 in 2017, 40 in 2018, 131 in 2019 and 107 in 2020.
With that decline, it almost makes you wonder why return and risk them trending even further down again? His thought process on that is that this is what he knows. This is what he’s comfortable with. This is something he’s always wanted to come back to do so with the business model improving still, why not.
To date, he is the only race car driver in history to be named Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year (2009). Johnson and wife Chandra are co-founders of the Jimmie Johnson Foundation, which focuses on K-12 public education and has contributed more than $12.4 million to organizations and schools in need across the U.S., since its inception in 2006. The Johnson family resides in Charlotte, N.C., with daughters Genevieve and Lydia.