Johnson struggles in first year as NASCAR owner

Jimmie Johnson walks down pit road before the first of two Daytona 500 qualifying races Thursday night at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla. (Associated Press)
Jimmie Johnson walks down pit road before the first of two Daytona 500 qualifying races Thursday night at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla. (Associated Press)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth forged a deeper friendship bantering on all those punishing bicycle rides than they did as rivals on four wheels during their Hall of Fame NASCAR careers.

Johnson gained an understanding of Kenseth’s often unassuming demeanor and the time, the effort and the workmanlike manner that all made him a Cup Series champion and two-time Daytona 500 winner. Johnson and Kenseth once took a formidable 103-mile bike ride that ended atop North Carolina’s Mount Mitchell, at 6,684 feet the highest U.S. mountain east of the Mississippi River.

Perhaps it is fitting that with Johnson facing another long ride to the top -- this time with his NASCAR team that wrestled with controversy, sluggish results and turnover in its debut season -- he called on Kenseth to help steady Legacy Motor Club.

Yes, Kenseth is on board as a competition adviser, providing guidance and strategy to the team. John Hunter Nemechek, a second-generation NASCAR driver, also joined Legacy and will drive the No. 42 Chevrolet. Toyota hopes deep ties to both fellow Legacy driver Erik Jones and Kenseth can accelerate the learning process in its first year as the team’s manufacturer, all while Johnson’s team goes at it alone without any technical alliances with other teams.

The overhaul is all part of Legacy’s plan to make the leap this season into respectability.

“I really think we can get our cars back in victory lane,” Johnson said. “That’s the easy answer, that’s what everybody talks about. When you’re a young, new team and growing and aspiring to be a regular contender, that’s a serious statement. But that’s what I think we’re really capable of.”

The 48-year-old Johnson is back, of course, with a limited nine-race Cup Series schedule that was scheduled to start Sunday at the Daytona 500. Johnson is changing in his role, too. He expected last year to be spent trying to build Legacy -- the bones of Petty Enterprises bought out by Maury Gallagher -- into a competitive team.

Instead, the seven-time champion was more of a CEO, glad-handing sponsors and working harder on the business and branding side of Legacy rather than shaping the competition programs for Jones and former driver Noah Gragson.

“I thought that I would be spending a lot more time in that space, but I’ve been very busy with other aspects of the business,” he said.

Johnson navigated a stormy 2023 that opened last season at Daytona with team ambassador Richard Petty -- the only other living seven-time NASCAR champion -- carping because of a reduced role in the organization. Legacy’s plans for Gragson unraveled when the undisciplined driver hit the like button on an insensitive meme of George Floyd. NASCAR suspended Gragson, and he eventually parted ways with Legacy. A handful of other drivers completed the season without a serious run at a checkered flag.

Jones had just one top-five finish and finished 27th in the standings. The 26-year-old Nemechek spent one ill-fated season in Cup in 2020 before he decided to step back and continue his development in the Truck and Xfinity Series.

“We have two very talented drivers that we want to take ownership in everything they touch,” Johnson said. “We’re a new team trying to build new processes, so we want their fingerprints on building this process.”

Enter Toyota to try and lead Legacy into victory lane.

Legacy broke ties with Chevrolet and shifted to Toyota, which added Jones and Nemechek to a fleet that already included Joe Gibbs Racing and 23XI Racing.

“I’d like to see them running consistently in the top 20,” Toyota Racing Development president Dave Wilson said. “I’d like to see them leading some laps. And certainly when it comes to the speedway races, all bets are off. There’s no reason why they can’t be running up front and challenging for wins.”

Wilson did acknowledge that Legacy faced “a steeper hill to climb” without a technical partnership with one of NASCAR’s heavyweight teams.

The 51-year-old Kenseth could instill a fierce competitiveness into a team with two 20-something drivers. Kenseth was coaxed out of retirement by Johnson to serve as a mentor for Nemechek and Jones, as well as provide input on the competition side.

“I’m not a technical guy. I’m not going to be helping necessarily with the nuts and bolts and making the cars faster,” Kenseth said. “I think it’s more of an advisory role and kind of see what’s going on and hopefully be able to help the drivers, help cultivate relationships and make the team strong.”

Even with 80-1 odds from FanDuel Sportsbook to win Sunday in the No. 84 Toyota -- still an odd sight after 83 Cup wins for Hendrick Motorsports in a Chevy -- Johnson remains a marquee name in the Daytona 500 field. He has Carvana on the hood for select races for the second straight NASCAR season. Dollar Tree and Family Dollar signed multiyear sponsorship deals. Johnson’s ties to Live Nation even secured the rock band Creed as an associate sponsor on his Toyota.

Legacy also announced this week an expansion into Formula E and named Travis Pastrana and Gray Leadbetter as drivers. Johnson was expected to drive in select races.

Johnson, his wife and two daughters live in London, where they relocated shortly after Johnson’s in-laws and nephew died in a double murder-suicide. Johnson planned to return to the United States for his Cup races or at least once a month to the shop and for key partner events and meetings.

Daytona has always been a time of optimism for Johnson. He’s a two-time Daytona 500 champion and thrilled fans last season when he topped a practice session before he challenged for the lead late in the race until a wreck wiped him out.

It was that kind of year for Johnson.

If there were any lingering hard feelings about Petty’s comments, Johnson got over it and will drive a “Petty Blue” paint scheme at Daytona inspired by The King’s 1964 Daytona 500 victory.

Johnson believes he can turn Legacy into a winner one way or the other, as an owner, driver, pitchman or whatever works.

“I think it’s been working well, so far,” he said. “We’ll just continue to adjust and see where I’m needed.”