DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — Jimmie Johnson isn’t a stranger to a stock car. He spent 19 years here and accomplished one of the best careers that anyone has ever witnessed. 83 wins. 7 championships. 2 Daytona 500 crows. So, even though he’s back in 2023 for the first time since leaving Phoenix in November 2020, Johnson is already feeling back at home.
“Yeah, it is different, but it still is a stockcar,” Johnson said on Wednesday night at the Daytona International Speedway. “The weight of the vehicle, the amount of downforce it has. I think within four or five laps at Phoenix in the new driver test, I was on pace and felt back at home. Had the big heavy car sliding around, moving around, all the queueing I’m so used to.
“Yes, it is different, but it’s way more familiar than what I had in two years driving INDYCARs.”
The reason Johnson elected to stay away from NASCAR when he walked away was because he was true to his desire to compete in the NTT INDYCAR Series. The cars are so vastly different however, so he had to unlearn all that he knew in a Cup car and learn how to drive an open wheel machine.
Now that he’s back in NASCAR, there’s a new car again, vastly different than the last one he raced. Still, as Johnson notes, he’s a NASCAR driver by nature and is picking this car up quickly.
So much so, he was the 23rd quickest qualifier under the lights at the World Center of Racing on Wednesday. That was good enough to be the best among the six open cars which locks him a spot into Sunday’s 65th annual Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN).
“Yeah, it is a huge relief,” Johnson said. “Came down here for my rookie season when the 48 team was just started up. We had to get in through qualifying. That was a very stressful moment. So I’ve kind of fallen back on that experience, although it was 20-something years ago now.
“But it was stressful. I’m just so thankful that the team put in the effort that they did to really help me. I’m not joking, when I was at the shop last week, the 42 team, the 43 team, were all on my car. Their cars were still sitting there with a lot of work to be done. This was a huge collaboration and effort I owe to the entire shop.
“Todd Gordon did a fantastic job of leading these guys. The 42 and 43 teams played a crucial role for our car being prepared and fast enough to get in today.”
Johnson compared Daytona 500 qualifying to that of what he endured last year in Indy.
“Yeah, there was a different feeling knowing there’s something bad that can happen, you might not be in the race,” he said. “Did have that sense at the 500.”
However, he noted that once he rolled off pit lane, he felt like something was really wrong. Little did he know, with his inexperience with the Next Gen, it was doing exactly what it was supposed to be doing. Johnson though, felt like he may not even get to make a lap due to what he felt was a terminal issue.
“That’s my first time in a plate car with this new Next Gen car,” he continued. “The experience was way different than I anticipated. The ride quality was much rougher. I didn’t know if that was supposed to happen or not.
“Then when I pulled it into fifth gear, which is weird to go to fifth gear, the drag of the vehicle, the rpm dropped really far. I didn’t know that was normal. So the entire lap I made around, I thought something was potentially wrong with the car. The rpm was really low, didn’t feel very fast.
“I didn’t think it was supposed to bounce like that. The bump-stops and the way you run the car now, trying to maintain a certain aero attitude, all the teams go about it a different way.
“I felt it a little bit at Phoenix with the test session I had there, but this was way different than what I expected. Once I crossed the finish line, I heard we had a good lap.
“It was stressful out there, more stressful than I intended it to be.”
Still, even with that lap, he didn’t get out of his car expecting to make it on speed. That’s because of what he felt was an engine issue that plagued his lap.
“The experience, because of the rpm being so much lower, with this rules package, I thought there was something wrong with the engine. I didn’t think it was running correctly. Then I saw my name on the pylon when I came around off of turn four. Well, much better than I thought sitting there in fifth (laughter).”