Many highlights of Jimmie Johnson’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Racing return included the Daytona 500.
On Friday, before giving Carvana Chevrolet No. 84 into the Daytona International Speedway oval for practice, Johnson managed to achieve a long-time dream of flying with the famous Thunderbirds of the United States Air Force.
“That’s probably near the top,” Johnson said. “I’ve never felt anything like it, the adrenaline, the acceleration.
“The first thing we did was we got off the runway and picked up the gear and did a performance spin to 10,000 feet. Instantly, I had to practice the heavy-G breathing they tell you about. It’s just wild. Just the weight of your body and the experience of expressing that thing in the sky; they roll over and turn and all sorts of stuff.
“It was great.”
Johnson’s biggest worry before flying with the Thunderbirds was getting sick. He admits he gets motion sickness easily, which is strange considering he has driven an Indy car at over 230 mph at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and has driven NASCAR Cup Series cars near 200 mph on the high banks of Daytona and Talladega. .
“I was really worried about getting sick and I’m happy to report that my ‘get sick’ bag was empty,” Johnson said proudly. “I didn’t get sick during the trip, so it was really good. But I took the little stairs.
“We pulled 9.1G and I blacked out. I came to sit in the back asking where I was, what was going on. It was wild because I couldn’t hear anything and I’m looking around like – what am I doing on a plane?
“And then I could hear someone say ‘Jimmie. Jimmy. Jimmie’, and then it got loud and I’m like ‘yeah!’. They were like, ‘Hey, you’re back. I think you took a nap’. I said, ‘I believe I did. I have no clue where I am or what I’m doing right now’. That was wild.”
More wild times are in store for Johnson. He makes his first NASCAR Cup Series start since the final race of the 2020 season at Phoenix Raceway in the 65 on Sundayth Day 500.
Johnson starts the No. 84 Carvana Chevrolet for the Legacy Motor Club in 39thstanding in the 40-car field. Johnson and Travis Pastrana are the two drivers added to the lineup based on quality speed.
With the exception of a test at Phoenix Raceway in January, this week marks the first time the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion has driven a NASCAR Next Gen car.
“It drives like a stock car,” he said. “It doesn’t drive like an Indy car, Thank God.
“We know how that went.”
For the past two years, Johnson has competed in the No. 48 Carvana/Honda Indy for Chip Ganassi Racing in the NTT IndyCar Series.
Johnson admitted to struggling on the road and street, but has achieved career-high finishes on the ovals including fifth at Iowa Speedway and sixth at Texas Motor Speedway last year.
Johnson was the fastest driver in Friday’s practice session at the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway with a fast lap of 194.225 mph.
He ran 34 laps and found some similarities to the car he previously drove in the NASCAR Cup Series.
“It’s just like riding a bike,” Johnson said. “I would say 70 or 80 percent of it is still stock and the draft is still here. Therefore, most of the familiar, most of the experience. I remember very few details as I make laps and enter the zone where this works or doesn’t work.
“Turn four is always difficult. Pit lane entry, pit lane exit, merge line, all the data is coming back and it’s still really there. That will help you run in the middle of the pack. But to win the race, you have to be on your game. That’s the part I’m still trying to refine and why I ran every lap I could right now. And I plan to do it again tomorrow and then there’s still a ton of learning to come in the race itself.”
Johnson doesn’t want to give up his fast pace on Friday, but feels confident he can have a good race back in the NASCAR Cup Series in the Daytona 500.
He knows what it takes to win on a restricted plate track, where anything can happen, including an unlikely winner.
“I don’t think anyone is looking at winning yet,” Johnson said. “I think you’re still trying to figure out who you’re going to work with, who can push, who can push well, who has speed. I definitely helped myself today by being in that fast Chevy pack and working with my old teammates.
“But when it comes to the last lap, it’s every man for himself. I don’t expect anyone to cut me any slack.”
With seven NASCAR Cup Series championships and two Daytona 500 victories, Johnson made the No. 48 is one of the most famous numbers in NASCAR history.
That number belongs to Bowman, the Daytona 500 pole winner.
Ironically, Johnson ran No. 84 Chevrolet a few laps side by side with Bowman No. 48 Chevrolet on Friday.
“It wasn’t strange to see it, but it was really strange to say that the No. 48 outside of me,” Johnson said. “Two or three times, I had to remind myself because I thought it was me when I was hearing the Number 48. I’m like – yes, I’m here. Why are you telling me that Number 48 is near me.’
“I didn’t drive car No. 48 since I left car No. 48 that, so that part was different. But visually, I’m used to seeing Alex (Bowman) in the car and that part was fine. But through my ears, when I heard about No. 48, I threw me out.”
Earlier on Friday, the Chevrolet Camaro entered by NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports was unveiled as the Garage 56 entry for the 24-hour Le Mans Sports Car race at Daytona. Johnson will co-drive that car with German Sports Car Actor Mike Rockenfeller and former Formula One star Jenson Button at Le Mans in June.
“I’m excited to be a part of it and it’s a fun car,” Johnson said. “I’m sure you’ve seen some of the details that go into it – how light the race car is, the downforce, the carbon brakes, the paddle shift – it’s really fun to drive. I am so grateful to be a part of the program.
“I leave here on Sunday; drive a rental car over to Sebring to do a 24 hour endurance test with the boys. It’s going to be a busy few days of driving.”
The 24-hour test at Sebring Raceway the day after the Daytona 500 is sure to be run as the “Longest Day.”
But it is also a very important test for the aspiring race driver who has plenty of laps to complete, even at the age of 47.
“Obviously the testing we’re doing is one piece of it,” Johnson said. “But the
rules, flags, there are many different things in the way they work for that particular event. I have to go over before the race and spend a day in the simulator to find out where their flag stations are, what their flags mean. There are several pitfall procedures that I need to be aware of and pay attention to. So, I’ll be going in a few days soon to get into their simulator to drive that.
“And then at home, I’ve just been using my sim rig and doing a bunch on iRacing. I’m out in the Corvette GT