DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – “New leader ... 84.”
Jimmie Johnson sent a jolt through the track when he shot to the top of the leaderboard in practice for the Daytona 500. Ol' seven-time has returned to NASCAR after a humbling two years in IndyCar as part owner and sometimes driver at what's called Legacy Motor Club.
Legacy is the Johnson-led rebrand of what began as Petty Enterprises in 1949 — a year after NASCAR began. The Daytona 500 on Sunday starts NASCAR's celebratory 75th season and all eyes are on Johnson, who just over three months ago did an about-face, returned to NASCAR and energized Richard Petty's limp race team.
Johnson is not driving the No. 48, the only number he's ever used at NASCAR's top level; that now belongs to Daytona 500 pole-sitter Alex Bowman, Johnson's successor at Hendrick Motorsports. Johnson is in the No. 84 Chevrolet.
Everything is different at this new Legacy organization, which Petty said Saturday would be completely run by Johnson within five years. But Johnson showed he still knows his way around Daytona International Speedway, even if FanDuel lists him as 40-1 longshot for Sunday.
“The large majority of it is familiar. I’m remembering little details as I make laps and get into the zone,” Johnson said. "It drives like a stock car. It doesn’t drive like an IndyCar, thank God. We know how that went.”
Try no podium finishes in two seasons.
As a team owner, Johnson is a stabilizing figure for the two-car organization of Erik Jones and Noah Gragson. The two-time Daytona 500 champion turns 48 this year, and is a mentor for Gragson — who has the wattage to be a superstar but struggled with maturity issues during his climb into a Cup ride.
He signed last year with what he thought was Petty GMS, a mediocre team with a legend in Petty in the team masthead. In reality, the 24-year-old has gotten is unrestricted access to one of the greatest sportsmen of his generation. Gragson is soaking in every bit of wisdom Johnson has to offer, and the deal came with spotter Earl Barban, who debuted with Johnson in that 2006 Daytona 500 victory.
“New leader ... 48,” was Barban's trademark call as Johnson led nearly 19,000 laps in his career.
Johnson didn't want a new spotter, but made a business decision to help his young, new driver.
“Wearing my team owner hat and knowing the experience that Earl has and what he can share with Noah ... I just sensed it was the right thing to do,” Johnson said.
Although Petty won the Daytona 500 seven times, the last Petty-owned car to win the Daytona 500 was in 1979. Johnson has the organization in the conversation for Sunday.
“I’m glad we’re at the top of the board and not at the bottom,” Johnson said. "I’m sure the headlines would read a little differently if we were on the other end of it.”
Other things to watch on Sunday:
NASCAR is in the second year of its new Next Gen car and still seeking solutions to a problem with the bumpers that caused several concussions last season.
The rear bumpers were supposed to be softened this year so that the car would absorb more energy during routine contact, but drivers earlier this month complained the hits were just as hard in the exhibition race at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Racing at Daytona requires deliberate bump drafting and it's an aggressive race in which the stakes are higher than a typical Sunday.
“Daytona has its own set of rules that everyone plays by,” said Brad Keselowski, who was fastest in Saturday's final practice. ”At the end of the race at Daytona, you have to ask yourself, ‘What am I willing to do to win this race?’ More often than not, especially over the last three years, it’s taken wrecking the leader to win the 500."
Denny Hamlin seeks a fourth Daytona 500 victory in a career he already finds beyond fulfilling.
The knock on Hamlin is that he's never won a Cup championship in 17 tries. But when asked this week whether he'd trade a Daytona 500 trophy for just one title, Hamlin snapped: “No. I got asked that last year. No way. No chance."
Hamlin finished ninth in his qualifying race and the entire Toyota fleet sat out of Saturday's practice. Both the Ford and Chevy camps seemed both fast and organized — Hendrick Chevys Bowman and Kyle Larson start on the front row, Ford drivers Joey Logano and Aric Almirola start on the second — but Hamlin still likes his chances.
“I LOVE my car,” he wrote on Twitter.
WHO TO WATCH
IndyCar driver Conor Daly and action sports star Travis Pastrana make their Daytona 500 debuts in a twist of fate for the good friends.
Pastrana always wanted to start the Daytona 500 to add to his long and storied resume. A decade after running one full season of NASCAR at his second-tier level, he gets the chance in a Toyota fielded by 23XI Racing.
“A lot of the guys that follow NASCAR, just the fans, they know me as a TV personality or a stuntman,” Pastrana said. “Really in my heart, racer, motorcross racer, built the reputation as a race car driver as well.”
He anticipates he'll draw new eyes, too.
“When I announced I was going to come over here, the action sports community jumped onboard 110%,” Pastrana said. “So many people are saying ‘Man, I’m watching the 500.’ I haven’t been excited since I was a kid for our industry to see this.”
Pastrana was part of Daly's 30th birthday celebration in Las Vegas in late 2021 that saved Daly's career. There, Daly met with a potential sponsor and that chat over cocktails led to a full season of IndyCar funding for Daly. Bitnile is now heavily involved in all of Ed Carpenter Racing and is funding Daly's effort at Daytona with The Money Team, a fledgling organization owned by Floyd Mayweather.
Daly barely made the race, and the No. 50 is probably the least prepared in the field, but like Pastrana he's excited to showcase motorsports.
“As a race fan first, I love this race, and I love the Indy 500, of course,” Daly said. “That’s the true gem in my heart and mind. But the Daytona 500 is the Daytona 500. I always think in my lifetime that I wanted to do the Le Mans 24-hour race, the Indy 500, and the Daytona 500. Now I’m going to have two of those crossed off the list.”
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