Jimmie Johnson might have finally given up being a full-time race car driver, but he will still drive race cars.
“No, I can’t see a day where I’m not driving something,” he told a small group of reporters before his book signing at the Concord (N.C.) Mills Mall Friday afternoon. “I think that, at the pointy end of the spear in NASCAR and IndyCar, and even the top division in sports car racing — I think those days are numbered.
“It’s just so expensive and so competitive and on the IMSA side, there aren’t even seats available to get into a car, so that might just self-correct on its own. But once that’s done, there are still so many cars I want to drive and race.”
Johnson announced late last month he would not be a full-time competitor in 2023 after two seasons (2021-2022) in the NTT IndyCar Series. His stint in open wheel came after 19 full seasons in stock cars at NASCAR’s highest level.
Now the opportunities are endless for Johnson to race wherever and whenever he wants beginning next year, and he plans on doing just that. The offers are already rolling in.
“My phone is ringing; my wheels are turning,” Johnson said. “I don’t think I have a full understanding of the opportunities and the commitment that goes with it. I’m still working hard on LeMans; I think that’s one of my top pillars. They still haven’t released who that list is and believe me, I’m pounding on every door I can just to know and understand. The commitment for that is a couple of weeks in France, then there’s testing and sim work and all that goes into it. So that’s just one example.
“Clearly, I’m still working on the IndyCar side. I’m hoping for some NASCAR races. My friends in the off-road world have been calling. I’ve been offered a Mint 400 ride. I’ve been offered a ride at Crandon. I’ve been offered Chili Bowl.”
Johnson hopes that sooner rather than later, he can start laying out what he might be doing next year. But right now, it’s pretty undefined.
“I’m really trying hard to not do what I did going into ’22 and commit to two programs that take up a lot of time,” Johnson said. “I really want to keep it in that 10-race window. …I look at [Race of Champions], and I had a great time at Goodwood, so there’s the Festival of Speed and the Revival. Now you’re down to seven more race weekends or race events to look at, so I just want to be smart in how busy I end up.”
Returning to NASCAR and driving the Next Gen car is intriguing to Johnson. The seven-time Cup Series champion stays in touch with drivers and has heard about the car’s teething pains, but he’s also heard about the brake package and how shifting is back in play, which has been fun for drivers.
“What’s funny is, when they were developing the car, I didn’t want any more work,” Johnson said. “I was invited to drive the car a few times and I was like, ‘I’m retiring; I’m not driving that thing. Why would I want to drive it?’ Now I’m like, ‘Well…why didn’t I drive it?’ It would have been cool, and I’d have some understanding of how different it is, but I didn’t want to work anymore at the time. I’m wishing I did take that offer.”
The good news for his fans is that if Johnson does get the chance to run NASCAR races, he doesn’t want it to be a one-and-done. He wants a couple of starts to get a good feel for things and, hopefully, have a good showing.
“But running a couple [races] changes the dynamic of teams that would potentially be interested in running me,” he said. “It gets complicated quick.”
Johnson would also be in the unique position to pick what races he wants to run — Dover and Martinsville quickly came to mind. Homestead, he said, is a good track.
Something else to think about — if and when he makes his Cup Series return — is not driving the car number he did for so many years. The No. 48 is no longer Johnson’s number and won’t be on his car for his next Cup Series start.
“Definitely, it would be a different number,” Johnson said with amusement. “My daughter asked me that the other night. She’s like, ‘Dad, if you went back to NASCAR, you wouldn’t be the [No. 48], right?’ I’m like, ‘No I would not.’”