When seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson “stepped away” after two years racing with Chip Ganassi Racing in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, following the season closer at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in September, the big question was: What next?
Johnson, who performed part-time during the 2021, driving only the road courses, had campaigned the full season this year, finishing 21st in the championship won by now-two-time titleholder Will Power. There were times when Johnson showed his innate abilities, particularly on ovals and certainly at the 106th Indianapolis 500, where he qualified 12th but crashed late in the going, finishing 28th.
The question about Johnson’s future got a big answer, after about a week of rumors about the probability of Johnson taking an ownership stake with Petty GMS. Yes, it’s true! The two most successful living NASCAR Cup Series championship drivers are going to work together, with Johnson taking on an ownership agreement with Petty GMS owner Maury Gallagher and fellow seven-time Cup Series champion Richard Petty, the team’s chairman.
His competitive juices aren’t yet quenched, so this agreement includes Johnson’s competition with Petty GMS for a limited number of NASCAR Cup Series races, including racing a Chevrolet in the 65th annual Daytona 500. The balance of Johnson’s racing schedule, his partnerships, paint scheme and car number aren’t known at this time.
Petty GMS was formed in December of 2021 when Gallagher, a two-time NASCAR Truck Series championship team owner, purchased Richard Petty Motorsports. Petty an inaugural NASCAR Hall of Fame class member and the all-time winningest driver in NASCAR history with 200 race victories, continues with the team his family started in 1949. Mike Beam, who began his career with Petty Enterprises as crew chief for Richard’s son Kyle Petty in the early 1980s, continues as team president.
Gallagher understands the ramifications of having Johnson by his side and in the garage, pits and on the racetracks where he’ll don his firesuit, gloves and helmet. “We have been consistent, since we began our Cup effort last year, in wanting to be up front and have a winning program,” he said. “No one in the modern era of NASCAR has won more than Jimmie. Having a driver of the caliber of Jimmie, driving our equipment and being able to provide feedback to our crew chiefs and engineers, but most importantly mentoring Erik (Jones) and [rookie] Noah (Gragson) will be invaluable. Perhaps most important of all, Jimmie will be a great partner. No one else,” in the NASCAR Cup Series garages, “will be able to say they have two seven-time Cup champions on their team. We are looking to make a strong statement next year and show that we are here to contend for wins and championships. I can’t wait to see what we can achieve together,” Gallagher remarked.
Johnson left full-time NASCAR Cup Series competition at the close of the 2020 season, after recording 686 starts with Hendrick Motorsports, the only team he’s worked with prior to signing this agreement. Currently sixth on the all-time Cup Series wins list with 83 – tied with NASCAR Hall of Fame member Cale Yarborough – Johnson joins 26-year-old driver Erik Jones, who recently scored Petty GMS’ first Cup Series win at the prestigious Southern 500 on Darlington Raceway’s tricky oval, together with 24-year-old NASCAR Xfinity Series standout Noah Gragson, a 2023 contender for Cup Series Rookie of the Year.
“It’s great to be back in NASCAR,” Johnson said. “When the INDYCAR season ended, I started on this journey of what was next. Maury and I connected, this opportunity came to light and it’s the perfect fit for me. Team ownership makes so much sense at this stage of my career, and after spending time with Maury and his family, talking with Mike [Beam], Dave (Elena, No. 43 crew chief) and Joey (Cohen, Petty GMS director of competition and engineering), I realized this was something I wanted to be involved with, from both the business perspective and on the competition side.
“If I’m going to commit to something like this,” Johnson said, “I want to make a difference and have something tangible to show for it when it’s all said and done. So this opportunity with Petty GMS is all of that and much more. I’m fortunate that I had incredible mentors throughout my life, and I’ve always tried to pay that forward. My experience and energy will add value to a team with young drivers like Erik and Noah – I feel like I can be a good resource, both on and off the track.”
One of his most prominent mentors, Rick Hendrick had this to say about Johnson’s next move in the sport: “This is a tremendous day for our sport,” Mr Hendrick said. “Jimmie is one of the all-time great champions on the racetrack, and I know he’ll apply the same mentality to his role as a team owner. When he sets his mind to something,” Hendrick reminded, “the level of commitment and work ethic he brings is unsurpassed. Seeing Jimmie in a fire suit with his name on the roof of a Chevrolet at the Daytona 500 is going to be very special for a lot of people. Competing against him will certainly be a change, and a big challenge, but we welcome his return to NASCAR and look forward to the next chapter of a truly remarkable career.”