Johnson left NASCAR racing after the 2020 season and spent two years driving IndyCars. In his part-time return the Cup Series and his attempt to qualify for the 2023 DAYTONA 500, Johnson, as part owner of newly-branded Legacy Motor Club, will be driving a car almost as foreign to his stock car history as the IndyCar was.
Johnson got his first experience in NASCAR’s Next Gen car during a recent test at Phoenix, a one-mile track far different from 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway, both in terms of configuration and speed. He spent additional time on a simulator to gain familiarity with the race car NASCAR introduced last year.
“The sim session that I had getting ready for here—although it’s kind of silly to do sim for Daytona running by yourself—I did notice the track was really rough,” Johnson said before time trials on Thursday night. “That was not the case my last time here…
“Then I’ve been advised many times that I need to remember that it’s a sequential (gear) box, and fourth gear is actually back here (behind third)—it’s not forward. I think some guys made that mistake last year and downshifted and blew engines.
“So, just trying to stay disciplined on that. I think the last thing I’ve got to be aware of and remember—there’s five gears, not four. On the simulator, I made that mistake and ran around in fourth gear for one of my qualifying laps.”
Johnson is one of six drivers who either have to qualify on time or race into the field in one of Thursday night’s Duel 150-mile qualifying races. The last time he faced that sort of situation was during his rookie year in 2002—and he won the pole.
“I’m sitting here with seven championships and 83 wins—yes, absolutely it would suck to not make the race,” Johnson said. “But the pressure I had on myself in 2002… life would have seemed like it ended if I didn’t make the race…
“We qualified on the pole in ’02. I don’t think that’s in the cards for us (Wednesday night), but who knows? Maybe lightning will strike twice.”
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