Johnson turned some laps Tuesday in a Cup car at Phoenix Raceway, the place where he last drove in NASCAR in 2020. The seven-time Cup champion has spent the last two years racing in IndyCar, and the stock car — a much heavier car with less horsepower and not stop-on-a-dime braking — obviously felt different.
“The speed did seem different, no doubt about that,” Johnson said. “And then just the mass of the vehicle — such a different feeling in the stock car with all the mass trying to slow it down and trying to change directions, trying to use the throttle.
“With the IndyCar, it’s so crisp and nimble. But that’s been hard for me to sense and feel so it’s really nice to be back in a car that gave me some warning, gave me some cues that it’s slipping and sliding around.”
The 47-year-old Johnson 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 where NASCAR lets elite drivers test a Next Gen car (the NASCAR Cup car that debuted last year) at a track where the driver won’t race.
It is designed to allow a driver to get adjusted to the car, and Johnson certainly was able to use the test to learn about the vehicle. Johnson had spent some time in the Chevrolet racing simulator to prepare.
“I’m thankful that I had sim time because I think I would have busted my butt if I just showed up here and tried to drive off a memory,” said Johnson, who noted how different the tires are for the Next Gen car. “So I found that to be very helpful and had a good day.”
But the 1-mile Phoenix track races nothing like the 2.5-mile high-banked Daytona International Speedway, where Johnson will have to qualify his way into the Daytona 500. There are only four spots open for non-chartered cars, and Johnson will be one of at least five drivers (and possibly as many as eight) going for those four spots.
“I wouldn’t say it’s changed anything for me relative to the 500,” Johnson said about the test. “But now driving the car and get a sense of it to work through some minor changes that we were allowed through the testing procedure, … for myself it was good just 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 could help him. He said he learned some about when to get on and off the throttle and the shifting mechanism of the Next Gen car.
“Hopefully it can apply far and wide,” Johnson said. “I don’t think what I learned here today will carry over to Daytona. … That’s an animal of its own. But today was a good track. And a good day for me in the car.”
Johnson has not set the rest of his 2023 schedule beyond Daytona, but he said Tuesday that racing in the Indianapolis 500 appears unlikely. He would like to race in Hendrick Motorsports’ “Garage 56” program which is bringing a Next Gen-type vehicle to the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
“It’s not off but I’m going to know real soon,” Johnson said about racing in the Indy 500. “It’s close [to not happening]. There’s a few moving pieces with the Garage 56 opportunity, sponsorship, timing and where that all sits.
“I don’t have clarity just yet, but hopefully very soon.”
Working with Johnson at Phoenix was Todd Gordon, a former Cup champion crew chief for Joey Logano. Johnson announced Monday that Gordon would be his crew chief for his Cup starts.
“Todd is a true professional,” Johnson said. “Clearly his stats speak for themselves. I’m trying to find somebody to really help fit in, work with me and also help the organization — Todd’s a perfect candidate for that.”
Gordon left Team Penske following the 2021 season, working primarily as a radio analyst on shows and broadcasts.
“Racers don’t ever give it up — at least the desire,” Gordon said, “Somebody said, ‘You’re getting scratched an itch.’ It’s great in that respect.
“And the other part is that the other parts of my career at this point, it keeps me relevant. It keeps me knowledgeable about the garage and about the cars and I think it’ll help me on that side of it.”
Johnson’s co-owner Richard Petty, who also was a seven-time Cup champion, said Johnson would be like a rookie in the Next Gen car because it is so different.
So did Johnson feel like a rookie Tuesday?
“I hope not,” Johnson said. “In some respects, I did.”
Bob Pockrass covers NASCAR for FOX Sports. He has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s, with stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter @bobpockrass, and sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass.
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