Johnson invigorated after stint in prestigious Rolex 24

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Jimmie Johnson prepares his helmet before getting in his car to start of the Rolex 24 hour auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

The nerves hit Jimmie Johnson as he stood on the starting grid before the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

The seven-time NASCAR champion is beginning a new chapter of his career — at 45 years old — in unfamiliar race cars. He was tabbed to start the most prestigious sports car race in America for his Action Express team and Johnson had just one goal for his first stint in the Cadillac.

“Certainly didn’t want to break the toy in the first couple of hours,” Johnson said after driving about 70 minutes Saturday around Daytona International Speedway.

He gave the No. 48 over to teammate Simon Pagenaud and then turned to Kamui Kobayashi, the two-time reigning winner of the Rolex 24, for an animated debrief.

Johnson, a little more than two months removed as the most dominant NASCAR driver of the last two decades, has “jumped into the deep end of the pool with weights on my ankles” as he transitions into new formulas of racing. This Rolex 24 is the eighth of his career but first in a decade and its a warmup for his move to IndyCar, where he'll be a rookie in a field stacked with drivers half his age.

His career change has made for a busy offseason of testing alongside some of the top drivers in the world and the demands have lit a spark in Johnson. He was winless in the final three seasons of his NASCAR career.

“I know the world that I’m stepping into and I know what I walked away from and the comfort that I had there, and I’m very aware of how uncomfortable I am going to be stepping into this new arena and it makes me feel alive,” Johnson said. “I am so excited to be uncomfortable and so excited to learn something new, so excited to drive these cars and really kind of grow as a driver and have a bunch of new experiences in life.

"It makes me feel more alive than I have in quite some time.”