One year after NASCAR retirement, Jimmie Johnson says fire, passion ‘still there’

DAYTONA BEACH — Just over a year after he retired from full-time NASCAR Cup Series racing, Jimmie Johnson found himself in a familiar place Tuesday afternoon.

Outside his hauler, just behind pit road at Daytona International Speedway.

“Without a doubt, the fire is still there,” said the 46-year-old racer. “With sports-car racing, it’s been in me for over 10 years. I ran my first 24-hour race back in the early-2000s, and didn’t think we had a chance to win, and my first year we finished second. I think I’ve been second four or five times now.

“The Rolex 24 … it’s on that Mount Rushmore of events you want to compete in. Daytona 500, Indy 500, Rolex 24, 24 Hours of Le Mans, those are the four on my list.”

Will Jimmie Johnson run the 60th Rolex 24?

Johnson spent most of Tuesday testing for next month’s Rolex 24 with the rest of the No. 48 Action Express team.

No, the seven-time Cup champion hasn’t officially announced whether he’s racing in the event or not, but all signs certainly point to Johnson making his second straight appearance in IMSA’s annual kickoff race.

EYE-OPENING: Rolex 24 At Daytona ‘eye-opening’ for NASCAR stars Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott

FAST START: Rolex 24 week starts fast for Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott, but plenty of work left to do

Last year’s Rolex 24: 5 instant takeaways: Wayne Taylor Racing wins 3rd straight Rolex 24 after Ganassi blows tire

Jimmie Johnson spent Tuesday turning laps at Daytona International Speedway.

Last year, the No. 48 Cadillac DPI finished second, with Johnson leading the field for a good portion of his second stint.

That race was the first of several events for the “retired” NASCAR star over the past 12 months, including 12 IndyCar road-course races with Chip Ganassi Racing, and three more IMSA events behind the wheel of the No. 48 Cadillac DPI.

“The experience in the car is something that’s never really changed for me,” Johnson said Tuesday before heading out to the track. “That’s the thing that I can still identify with today … I feel like I’m a 5-year-old when I first started racing dirt bikes.

“The adrenaline, the accountability of controlling a vehicle, the experience inside the vehicle, it hasn’t a changed a bit. That’s wild to me. I guess that explains why I’m still around.”

Jimmie Johnson during IMSA testing at Daytona International Speedway, Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021.

Jimmie Johnson during IMSA testing at Daytona International Speedway, Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021.

Johnson learning IndyCar, IMSA racing

An ever-burning desire to win doesn’t hurt, either.

Admittedly, Johnson struggled last season in both cars, finishing no better than 17th in 12 IndyCar races and playing catch-up most of the year in his return to IMSA.

While his 2021 season started at Daytona last January, it wasn’t until mid-summer that Johnson finally felt like he was turning a corner.

“I feel like I had a false sense of comfort last year,” he said. “I showed up (in IMSA), and I was a second, second-and-a-half off, and I was really surprised by that. I spent the year trying to close that gap, and I think at Road America (last month) I finally did that.

“You look at this driver lineup — Formula 1 drivers, accomplished IndyCar drivers, accomplished sports-car drivers — it is so stacked, and so much more intense than I thought a year ago.”

No more underestimating the car or competition this season, though. With a year under his belt, and the competitive fire still burning — perhaps the most it has in years — don’t expect Johnson to slow down any time soon.

Jimmie Johnson during IMSA testing at Daytona International Speedway, Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021.

Jimmie Johnson during IMSA testing at Daytona International Speedway, Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021.

And while nothing is official just yet, winning his first Rolex 24 — Johnson has three runner-up finishes in eight starts — would be a good way to kick things off.

“I have friends who, when their NASCAR days are done, they’re done,” Johnson said. “For me, that passion is still there.”

This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: Testing for Rolex 24, Jimmie Johnson says competitive fire still burns