CONCORD, N.C. (AP) — Jimmie Johnson has won eight Cup Series races at Charlotte Motor Speedway, more than any driver in NASCAR history. And yet the seven-time champion said he’s never felt more ill-prepared for a race heading into Sunday night’s Coca-Cola 600.
Johnson retired from full-time stock car racing in 2020 but is participating in a few select marquee Cup races this year for Legacy Motor Club, which he co-owns. He's also racing on a number of other circuits, including next month's 24 hours of Le Mans as he works to bring more name recognition to his brand.
That means he's had very limited experience in the NextGen car, which debuted in 2022.
Johnson ran the Daytona 500 and at Circuit of the Americas this year in the No. 84 Chevrolet, but hasn't competed at a 1.5-mile oval like Charlotte Motor Speedway. And with rain threatening to wipe out practice and qualifying Saturday, Johnson could be stepping into the car cold when the race begins Sunday night, leaving him a bit unsettled.
“A couple hours (testing) in Phoenix is the only comparable oval experience I’ve had," Johnson said. “We had 30 to 40 laps in a simulator and that’s been it. I want to survive the first stage (Sunday) and go from there.”
His expectations are modest for a driver who has won the Coca-Cola 600 four times.
“A top 10 or top 15 would be an awesome finish for us,” Johnson said.
Johnson said he's “excited, invigorated and exhausted” since joining Maurice Gallagher last year as co-owner of Legacy Motor Club, the team formerly known as Petty GMS Motorsports.
On the track it's been a rough season for the team.
Full-time drivers Erik Jones and Noah Gragson are 25th and 32nd in Cup points, and neither has a top-five finish this season. The best performance from that duo is Jones’ sixth-place finish at Talladega in April.
“Erik continues to show just how good he is,” Johnson said. “He’s had challenging circumstances this year and he just stays focused and gets the job done. Noah, from afar, I wasn’t sure how seriously he took things. His desire and commitment to his craft is what has impressed me the most.
“We have a massive effort on our hands to figure out many ways to improve. I’m proud of everything going on. I can’t ask for more effort from everyone involved. We just need more consistency.”
The rain, which is forecast to continue throughout the weekend, also threatens to put a damper on Johnson's plans to fly to Paris next week to begin preparations for his latest racing adventure at Le Mans, another of his coveted global marquee events.
“It’s feeling very real,” Johnson said. “I’m very excited for the opportunity. I honestly don’t know what to expect. Right now, it’s great excitement and curiosity.”
After Le Mans, Johnson plans to return home to continue building Legacy’s foundation, which will transition to Toyota cars next season.
“It’s been an exciting adventure that I’ve embarked on here,” Johnson said. “It’s exciting to be in this new element. I truly feel like that I’m part of something that’s going to be a force in the future of NASCAR.”
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