Jimmie Johnson starts final fulltime season with defense of Clash win

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 08: Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Ally Chevrolet, stands in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Cup Series 62nd Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 08, 2020 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Jimmie Johnson’s return to Daytona International Speedway has been understandably bittersweet.

Though he’s excited to get back into the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE to start a new NASCAR Cup season, Johnson must process the realization that the 2020 season will be his last as a full-time driver and his last chance to win a record eighth championship.

“Coming down here, I obviously know this is my last full-time season,” Johnson said on Saturday at Daytona International Speedway. “So there were mixed emotions. But I’m excited to start my final year. To know that (sponsor) Ally is on board, Hendrick Motorsports getting the team where it is, I really feel like we have an opportunity to have a strong year on track and go out in style, with the goal of the ultimate prize.

“I’m really excited about that. Once I got in the car and on track, that stuff is all out the window and it’s really about working on the race car and trying to make it go. I’m excited to be here. I know the year is going to evolve and change for me from start to finish and my emotions with what goes on. But I’m in a very good place right now—just ready to go.”

Johnson is the defending winner of the Busch Clash at Daytona (3 p.m. Sunday on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Little did he know, however, that when he took the checkered flag under caution in that exhibition race that the 2019 season would bring a change of crew chiefs—from Kevin Meendering to Cliff Daniels—and extend his career-worst drought in Cup points races from 59 to 95 races.

Johnson is eager to race in the Clash, not just for the trophy, but for the experience it will bring.

“We don’t have a chance to test, so a lot of us haven’t been in a Cup car, except for the guys that did the 2021 (test) stuff,” Johnson said. “So two drivers of the 40 have been in a race car since Homestead. Now more than ever (the Clash) is very useful.”