7-time NASCAR champ Johnson adds COTA, Coca-Cola 600 to sked
By DAN GELSTON
(AP) -- Jimmie Johnson is adding Coke and COTA to his NASCAR schedule.
The seven-time NASCAR champion said Tuesday he will drive the No. 84 Chevrolet in the March 26 race at the Circuit of the Americas and the May 28 Coca-Cola 600 as part of his limited race lineup this season.
Johnson returned to NASCAR this season after a two-year hiatus when he bought into the ownership group of Legacy Motor Club and signed on as a part-time driver. He topped the speed chart last month at practice for the Daytona 500 and was on pace for a top-10 finish in the race until he was collected in a late wreck and finished 31st. Johnson previously announced he would drive in July in the Chicago street course race.
Chicago, of course, is a first-time race for the 47-year-old Johnson. So is COTA, the popular 3.41-mile (5.48-km) road course in Austin, Texas, that wasn’t added to NASCAR’s Cup schedule until 2021, Johnson’s first season in IndyCar. He’s more familiar with Charlotte Motor Speedway, where he won the prestigious Coke 600 in 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2014.
“It’s been on my bucket list to drive at COTA,” Johnson said. “It’s the way drivers speak of the track, the challenge the track poses to everyone. I was hopeful and thought I was going to go with IndyCar, but they changed their schedule and didn’t go.”
So he’s off in a Cup car later this month, with a new sponsor on board. Club Wyndham will serve as the primary sponsor for COTA and the Coke 600.
Johnson mentioned “bucket list” for another previously committed race later this season. Johnson and two teammates will drive the special Garage 56 car that will race at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June. Johnson, who has 83 career Cup victories, participated in an on-track test last week.
Much in the way he deftly picked off stronger drivers ahead of him in his NASCAR prime, Johnson keeps knocking out some of his dream races. He will eliminate COTA and Le Mans from his list this year and achieved a professional milestone in 2022 when he raced in the Indianapolis 500. Much like Daytona this season, Johnson was in position late to race for a top-10 finish until he triggered a wreck and faded to 28th.
“I’m kind of running out of ideas,” Johnson said, laughing. “I still have the desire to drive and try cool stuff. I know I can come up with a few more. But truth be told, I’ve been able to scratch off some significant experiences. I’d still love the Coke 600-Indy 500 double some day. Then I can kind of get into some more experiences from either a car or track that I want to drive. But out of these big-ticket items, I’m running out of options.”
Johnson told The Associated Press that “marquee events” are still a priority for him, one reason he picked a return to Charlotte. He said he’d like to drive in about 10 races per NASCAR season but didn’t think he’d hit that goal in 2023. The two-time Daytona 500 champion said he had about two more years left to drive in the “Great American Race.”
The big thrill is racing again for long-time team owner Rick Hendrick and Chevrolet at Le Mans in a special class designed to showcase the innovation of NASCAR’s Next Gen model. The prestigious endurance race is scheduled for June 10-11, or two weeks after the Indianapolis 500.
Johnson won all seven championships - tying a NASCAR record - driving for Hendrick Motorsports. They’ve reunited for the Garage 56 project and Johnson will team with Mike Rockenfeller and Jenson Button in the three-driver lineup.
There, perhaps, could have been another reunion.
One of the unique aspects of NASCAR is that a driver can own a team and still race for another one, such as Denny Hamlin’s stake in 23XI Racing while he remains a championship contender for Joe Gibbs Racing. Johnson might have seemed an obvious replacement for Hendrick driver Alex Bowman when he missed five races last season with a concussion or for Hendrick driver Chase Elliott, who currently is out indefinitely with a fractured tibia. Hendrick instead turned to Noah Gragson, who now drives for Johnson at Legacy MC, last season and Josh Berry subbed this year for Elliott.
“I would have entertained either opportunity, for sure,” Johnson said. “But I wasn’t approached for either of those opportunities. I don’t take anything negative from not getting asked for the 48 last year or the situation this year with Chase. The way I see it, watching the moves they made, they’re making decisions that are best for the company.”
Now it’s Johnson calling the shots in his first year as an owner. His busy personal schedule -- he’s off to France for spring break with his family -- means he won’t be at the track every week. And he navigated choppy waters at Daytona when Legacy MC ambassador and fellow seven-time champion Richard Petty complained he was cut out of the team’s decision-making. Johnson has yet to talk with Petty over the issues but there will be time for that conversation, at some point.
“The excitement in and around the race team opened up many doors at a time where we weren’t sure we could get any meetings,” Johnson said. “We’re on the run and things are going really good.”
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Updated March 15, 2023