DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The week-long frenzy surrounding Jimmie Johnson’s return to NASCAR on the sport’s grandest stage reached its fevered peak in Sunday’s Daytona 500. The seven-time Cup Series champion was part of an elite group of stock-car racing greats who gave the command to fire engines, and the broadcast and pre-race build-up matched the fanfare.
By the time it came to get down to the business of racing in his unretirement debut, Johnson demonstrated that he still had his veteran poise, if not the Daytona good fortune. His first go in the No. 84 Legacy Motor Club Chevrolet that he co-owns ended in the calamity of an overtime wreck and a 31st-place finish.
“All in all, just a great day. I hate that we didn’t get to the finish line, but we got a lot closer than I thought,” Johnson said at the end of his 20th Daytona 500. “If I would have taken a bet before the race started, I would have thought some issues earlier than that, but we had a great day. The Carvana car was awesome. Very, very proud of this race team. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the finish line.”
Johnson started 39th in the 40-car field, sharing the back row with Travis Pastrana, who celebrated with his friend after both drove their way into the starting lineup in Wednesday night’s qualifying. He made incremental progress through the first stage, placing seventh by the first break in the race.
Johnson hit a snare near the end of Stage 2, nabbed for speeding on pit road during a Lap 122 stop. The penalty dropped him to the tail end of the field, and Johnson was at a loss to explain it.
“I don’t know how,” he radioed the team. “No worries.”
The more calamitous events were yet to come in the final stage. Johnson’s No. 84 caught a smidge of damage from a seven-car stackup on Lap 182 of a scheduled 200, but he remained in contention on the back end or fringes of the top 10 as the race pushed into extra laps.
A crash that sent the event into its second overtime proved to be Johnson’s undoing, halting his day nine laps short of the end.
“I thought we had decent pace, and I thought he did a good job at the end of Stage 1, just continuing to drive forward,” No. 84 crew chief Todd Gordon told NASCAR.com. “I thought longer in the run, we were in better position. We got into some damage there about midway through the last stage, got hit pretty hard in the right-side door. It didn’t look bad. These composite bodies don’t really show you the hit you got, but I think we damaged the exhaust and lost a little bit of pace there and just couldn’t keep up to where we needed to be.
“It’s speedway racing, right? You get to the end of these races, and people push pretty hard, pushing through the corners is a pretty hairy thing, and we got caught up in it. I’m pretty proud of the effort that we put together. I thought we had a pretty good race car. We had something we could have worked with. We’ve got some growing to do.”
In terms of the notion that the 47-year-old driver might have shown any rust in his first NASCAR race since the end of 2020, Gordon just smiled.
“Seven-time champion still knows how to drive a race car, right?” said Gordon, a Daytona 500 winner himself as Joey Logano’s crew chief in 2015. “It’s not that he’s been sitting at home on a rocking chair. He’s been IndyCar racing. So to bring it back here, I thought he did a great job, and he’s competitive. He’s competitive. He wants to win, and unfortunately, we just got caught up in the things today, but I felt like, before that point, we were in a good place to be able to. I don’t feel like he races at 100% until it’s time, and I felt like we had a little something left.”