NASCAR Hall of Famer Jimmie Johnson runs into early trouble, finishes 28th at Daytona 500

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Jimmie Johnson walks across the stage during driver introductions during the NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Monday, Feb. 19, 2024, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Jimmie Johnson could only watch on pit road as the familiar, jubilant scene that twice before was for him raged around Daytona International Speedway.

Fireworks exploded above him and a Hendrick Motorsports car — the organization Johnson once helped shape into the best in NASCAR — peeled off while the Daytona 500 checkered flag stuck out William Byron's window.

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The Daytona 500 was the kind of race in his championship heyday Johnson was always a threat to win. Heck, Johnson won it twice, in 2006 and 2013, while driving for Rick Hendrick.

He’s found Daytona International Speedway tougher to master in his return to NASCAR as a part-time driver and full-time team owner of Legacy Motor Club. Johnson was collected in a multi-car wreck only six laps in Monday night, plummeted out of contention and finished 28th in the No. 84 Toyota.

“I had hoped to race longer. It's a matter of time before you get caught up in something around here,” Johnson said.

The seven-time NASCAR champion and newest Hall of Fame inductee had a more successful night as team owner than he did as a driver. Legacy drivers John Hunter Nemechek and Erik Jones finished seventh and eighth, respectively.

“Two top-10s on both cars, that's good stuff,” Johnson said.

Johnson turned around and smiled as he saw Byron's team celebrate in the distance. They were teammates at Hendrick for three seasons before Johnson stepped away from NASCAR at the end of 2020.

“No joke, he was trick-or-treating at my house when he was a kid,” Johnson said. “He handed me a little autograph card that said, 'Someday I'm going to be your teammate.' I tapped him on the head and said, ‘Yeah, sure kid. Sure you are.’ Now he just won the Daytona 500.”

Byron launched Hendrick Motorsports’ 40th anniversary season with the team's first Daytona 500 win since Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2014.

“It was funny seeing Jimmie out there tonight and not being in our car,” Hendrick said. “That felt really weird.”

Johnson came dangerously close to missing the cut for “The Great American Race.”

He didn’t have the speed in time trials to earn a spot in the 40-car field. It meant Johnson had to race his way in. He survived a late spin that put him in a precarious position, only to pull off a comeback with a three-wide move through the final turn that locked him into his 21st Daytona 500.

It was the last Daytona thrill for Johnson, at least this time.

“There’s optimism in the beginning, hopeful we could straighten out the suspension and then at least run in the draft,” Johnson said. “Then, as time went on, we realized the severity of the damage and we just had too much damage to even really hang in the draft unless I had a unique situation. So then, at that point it was just wondering if there were going to be more cautions and if we would gain some positions through the cautions.”

Even with a disheartening result, Johnson won't rule out another run at the Daytona 500. He used a #OneFinalTime hashtag ahead of his expected final Daytona 500 in 2020. He won't be so hasty for his next one.

“As long as we can find partners, I'll keep coming back,” Johnson said. “Others said that I retired. I never said it.”

Johnson had a two-year dalliance in IndyCar before he returned for three Cup races last season. He got caught in a late wreck in last year's Daytona 500 and finished 31st. He was 38th and 37th in his two other starts.

Johnson said he'll fly back to his London home on Tuesday and likely return to the United States in three weeks in his owner's hat for the race at Phoenix Raceway. He'll be back in the No. 84 in April at Texas Motor Speedway and then for seven more races this season, still looking for his first Cup since June 4, 2017, at Dover Motor Speedway.

Until then, Johnson was glad to have at least one more race at Daytona — where he palled around with the band Creed and NSYNC member Joey Fatone, his race-day fit was a cowboy hat and fans flocked to him as he remained a must-get for the autograph hounds.

“I soaked it in as much as I could, even rolling around with a wounded car,” Johnson said. “But to be here, and be part of the race, especially with the test that we had as a team on Thursday to get into the race, the results weren't what we wanted, but it was very special.”


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