DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Seven-time is officially back.
Jimmie Johnson, making his return to stock car racing after a two-year dalliance in IndyCar, topped the first practice session for the Daytona 500 on Friday.
The two-time Daytona 500 winner and seven-time Cup Series champion reached a top speed of 194.25 mph around the 2½-mile superspeedway. He edged fellow Chevrolet drivers Chase Elliott — his former teammate at Hendrick Motorsports — Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and pole-sitter Alex Bowman, the driver who replaced Johnson when he left NASCAR after the 2020 season, to create a feel-good moment for the bowtie.
It was Johnson’s first extended stint behind the wheel in the Next Gen car at Daytona International Speedway. He did take part in a one-day practice session at Phoenix last month.
“I honestly think it’s too early to read far into this. It is plate racing, and that was just a practice session,” Johnson said. “We didn’t make any mistakes and did some things right to end up where we did.
“Anything can still happen. But I’m glad to be in here, I’m glad we’re at the top of the board and not the bottom. I’m sure the headlines would read a little differently if we were on the other end of it.”
Johnson returned to NASCAR in November as part-owner of what is now called Legacy Motor Club, an organization that began as Petty Enterprises nearly 75 years ago. He has so far as a driver entered the Daytona 500 — Johnson will start 39th on Sunday — the street course race in Chicago in July and the 24 Hours of Le Mans as part of NASCAR’s Garage 56 project.
How’d the new car feel?
“It drives like a stock car,” he quipped. “It doesn’t drive like an IndyCar, thank God. We know how that went.”
Johnson drove the No. 48 for his entire career but will be behind the wheel of the No. 84 when he competes in NASCAR this year.
Aric Almirola and Joey Logano, both winners in Thursday night’s qualifying races, led a train of Ford drivers behind the Chevy leaders. Almirola and Logano were fifth and sixth and followed by Ryan Blaney, Chase Briscoe, Kevin Harvick, Zane Smith, Chris Buescher and Harrison Burton.
Martin Truex Jr. was the fastest Toyota driver in 17th.
The fast lap capped a big day for Johnson, who earlier flew with the Air Force Thunderbirds before turning 34 laps in the one-hour practice session. He blacked out in the jet but didn’t get sick.
“Never felt anything like that, the adrenalize, the acceleration,” he said.
There’s one practice remaining for the 65th running of “The Great American Race,” and several drivers are expected to skip the final session because they don’t want to risk any damage before the season opener.